The Peach State is quite acquainted with the ongoing Vogtle Power Plant affair.
It does not necessarily take Jane Fonda or Michael Douglass to expose the stark reality of playing with uranium. However, amidst demand for electricity, changing climate patterns, blackouts and lack of safe sources of electricity, nuclear power remains an alluring form of production. Once herald as an attractive source of energy, industry now shrouds with controversy regarding waste disposal, safety and regulatory policies. Clearly, these disputes indicate that nuclear technology in its current form is not adaptive to meeting the constructs of being safe and clean. The main drawback is that there is no scientific method of segregating, disposing and recycling radioactive waste.
Uncanny coincident: after 12 days of releasing of the Hollywood thriller the China Syndrome in 1979, the plant at Three Mile Island sustained near total nuclear meltdown. This kink jolted the industry prompting seriously to re-examine risks in light of uncertainty in promoting nuclear energy. Since then, the world has seen two major accidents involving nuclear power plants, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, followed by Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan in 2011.
The facts surrounding wrath of Fukushima with releases of dangerous radiation shaped policy and regulatory environment, further curtailing the emergence of once perceived nuclear renaissance. Leading countries that relied on nuclear power, Germany and France have reconsidered their energy strategy opting instead for safer and cleaner mixes. However, in America, nuclear power remains stoic culture symbol where everyone knows, moving away from this industry is the right thing to do but also realize hardest thing to do. Unfortunately, this symbol known less for positive attributes is behest of destructive powers of ‘bombs’ rather than promoting electricity.
Obviously, there is more to dreaming of energy transformation than just the technical ability of splitting atom in extracting energy for limitless generations. There is no denying that this discovery in mid 1940s was an astounding scientific achievement. Nonetheless, we have not progressed. In the process of splitting atom, dangerous radioactive elements must be isolated forever.
That said, energy produced from nuclear power is perceived to provide limitless and clean source as there is no direct carbon dioxide emission. Electricity once produced is also relatively cheap, costing around 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for operations, maintenance and fuel. However, plants are capital intensive and commercially difficult to fragment into smaller units. Countries like China have begun promoting small modular reactor (SMR) prototypes that produce 300 MW or less electricity, compared to larger units that typically produce 1000MW.
Larger reactors are costly and risks amplify. Issues such as institutional arrangements, investment, regulatory environment, and reform in handling waste, and risk proofing are manageable. The biggest concern for this industry is the need for another piece of American ingenuity−environmentally safe functioning waste disposal system. This waste is currently stored in vast underground reserves for centuries.
With Vogtle, Georgia will be on the radar screen.
The World will likely be watching the Peach State closely for experimenting with national pioneering technology. Pending approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Georgia’s soil will implement the next generation reactors.
The General Assembly in 2009 passed Senate Bill 31 to commission Plant Vogtle expansion by using two 1,100 MW Advanced Passive (AP) 1000 reactors costing around $14 billion. Built by the Southern Company, Vogtle is already facing several setbacks with lawsuits between contractors and Georgia Power on key regulatory approvals, change orders, licensing delays and excavation works. Georgia Power customers as ratepayers are currently paying for plant expansion. Controversies leading to budget overruns of almost $800 million will further influence consumer bills. Some of these delays are understandable in light of lessons learned from Fukushima, industry applying cautionary approach to implementation. The success or failure of the Vogtle AP reactors will in many ways shape the future of energy security and policy in the United States. Georgia is in the forefront again to maintain industrial competition with China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The United States must seek a safe innovative balance with a focus on additional R and D type of ventures. In doing so, a Curiosity II type of enthusiasm is necessary. What is lacking is seriousness in providing scientific solutions to permanent waste disposal and environment friendly upgrades in the power sector. Transitioning to a safer integrated mix of energy sources is a pragmatic move forward also in seeking ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In this regard, Georgia has a long ways to go. A closer look at sources and share reveal a reliance of 54 percent on fossil fuel http://www.eia.gov/nuclear/state/georgia/ with nuclear power share of over 24 percent. If all goes well, Vogtle will likely increase this share by 2017.
In its current form, the gist of the nuclear electricity boils down to four words. It is not safe. There is a real world concern of adaptability of nuclear technology. To sum up, Duran Duran puts it starkly “if it blows up in your face, see you on the other side”.