New U.S. Nuclear Plants Ahead

Nearly one year after being struck by a horrific 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese are dealing with far more than rubble and rebuilding. They’re decontaminating.

The disaster that struck last March 11 destroyed the cooling systems in three reactors at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in the town of Fukushima, triggering a mandatory evacuation for anyone residing within a 12-mile radius of the plant (which is still in place) and an ongoing “cold shutdown.” The Japanese government is now embarking on a trillion-yuan effort to decontaminate radioactive particles from 247,000 acres of land in an attempt to make it habitable once again. Since January, workers covered with white protective jumpsuits, gas masks, gloves and booties have been removing cancer-causing caesium-134 and caesium-137 from forests and fields.

Japan’s enduring crisis is why last week Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko submitted the only vote against approving a license to build two new nuclear reactors at Burke County, Georgia’s Alvin W. Vogtle plant.

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened,” Jaczko said.

Nonetheless, the NRC’s final 4-1 approval officially granted Atlanta-based Southern Company the go-ahead to construct the first new reactors in the U.S. since the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant in 1979. The $14 billion modern Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, a design that boasts an improved passive safety system but has also been revised nearly 20 times due to potential vulnerabilities cited by the NRC, will be funded in part by $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees from President Obama. Operation could begin as early as 2016, even without the safeguards advised by the NRC to protect the public from a Fukushima-like radiation disaster.

“We’ve given them a license. They have not given us any commitment they will make these changes in the future,” Jaczko added after the decision.

Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Thomas Fanning conceded that the recommended modifications may not be in place when operation begins; however, the company will strive to “incorporate the comments of everybody and every event along the way, to assure that we have the safest, most reliable generation in the world built here at Plant Vogtle.”

Vogtle’s expansion, which will create 800 permanent and 4,000 temporary construction jobs as well as establish the plant as the largest nuclear complex in the U.S., could be the ice-breaker needed for growth in the long-stagnant industry. Already, new reactors in South Carolina and Tennessee are projected to be approved in the near future.

“Now that the commission has approved the first new reactor in 30 years, it should act promptly on the applications awaiting approval for 14 reactors of the same model,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “Our country will need 100 new reactors to provide enough reliable, clean electricity to power our homes, businesses, computers and vehicles.”

But nuclear watchdog, environmental and health groups are expressing concerns about the progression of an industry that cannot guarantee its energy won’t later become a radioactive public health and environmental problem, and say new nuclear projects fail to address the problem of long-term storage of radioactive waste that will remain hazardous to humans and other life for hundreds of thousands of years. Waste management via ocean dumping was prevalent in the past, and ideas as widespread as shooting the waste into space to placing it in Antarctic ice sheets have been suggested.

Currently, U.S plants store approximately 75% of their spent fuel on-site in pools, a method that proved disastrous for Japan.

“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,” said Allison Fisher with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “It is inexplicable that we’ve chosen this moment in history to expand the use of a failed and dangerous technology.”