With Japanese Nuclear Crisis Still Unfolding, New Nuclear Reactor Approval Is Move in Wrong Direction
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approval today of a proposal for the construction and operation of two new reactors in Georgia is a move in the wrong direction. The license granted to Southern Company is the first in 30 years and comes nearly one year after an earthquake initiated a still-uncontained nuclear crisis in Japan.
Nuclear development in the U.S. has been dormant for decades for a variety of good reasons, so it is inexplicable that we’ve chosen this moment in history to expand the use of a failed and dangerous technology.
While countries like Germany, Italy and Switzerland responded to the catastrophe in Japan by announcing plans to eliminate nuclear power from their energy sector, U.S. nuclear regulators are doing the exact opposite. The U.S. is approving new reactors before the full suite of lessons from Japan has been learned and before new safety regulations that were recommended by a task force established after the meltdown crisis at Fukushima have been implemented.
Even before nuclear reactor vulnerability was exposed in Japan, Southern Company’s proposal to expand its Vogtle nuclear power plant had been delayed by problems with financing and design.
To alleviate the tremendous risk associated with nuclear construction, Southern Company sought a federal loan guarantee, which it received in February 2010 for $8 billion to back the $14 billion project. This incentive, combined with a law passed by Georgia lawmakers in 2009 to allow the company to charge ratepayers up front for costs associated with the project, shields Southern Company from financial risk. In short, if the project fails, both taxpayers and ratepayers will bear the financial losses.
In December, after 18 design revisions, the NRC approved the Westinghouse Electric AP 1000, the reactor design slated for the Vogtle expansion. The new design is untested, and despite its multiple revisions to address safety vulnerabilities, the approval comes before all the lessons learned from Japan have been realized. Incorporating new safety features during the construction would delay the project and increase the cost – the exact circumstances that led to more than 30 mid-construction reactor cancellations in the 1970s.
The Vogtle nuclear expansion project – initiated by an early site permit application filed six years ago – was supposed to be the poster child for the industry’s much-heralded nuclear renaissance that never materialized. Instead, it has served as a reminder of the reasons reactor construction stopped for 30 years: Nuclear plants are so expensive that corporations cannot afford to build them without a massive infusion of government money, and they raise serious safety questions that remain unaddressed.