A lot of people showed up at the Carter center for a talk I gave June 7 on the Fukushima crisis. The atmosphere afterwards was electric as talk turned to a topic of more immediate interest to Georgia citizens — the future of the proposed Vogtle nuclear power plant. Southern Co. is proposing to build two reactors it bills as “the first new generation nuclear plants in the United States, in answer to our national need for emission-free energy from a reliable and affordable source.” Reliable as long as they’re running, but when nuclear power plants run into trouble they often have to be shut down for long periods. Japan is a case in point: only 19 or 54 reactors are currently operating. Some are down for maintenance and refueling but more than a dozen are down because of earthquakes. (Most are unlikely to be restarted anytime soon because of stiff local opposition.) As Fukushima demonstrated, in the event of a major power failure, nuclear plants cannot be relied upon to supply electricity. They MUST shut down because they depend on offsite power to run their cooling systems. Affordable? In the US the cost of one reactor is approaching $10 billion – Southern wants to build two. Southern is getting financial aid in many forms — state legislators allowed it to charge customers construction-work-in-progress fees — with no strings attached — even though construction hasn’t yet started; in fact the reactor design has not even been approved and building can’t begin until it has. Southern can also raise rates to ensure it gets a retail return on equity (ROE) of over 11% — recently approved by a nuclear-friendly Public Service Commission. And it stands to get a multi-billion loan guarantee from the federal government to help finance the plant — with the loan itself paid for by the Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank. So what about the call for more solar from Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald? Sounds sensible given Georgia’s climate. Solar costs are coming down. We all know which way nuclear costs are headed.
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