Inside Plant Vogtle: Nuclear expansion - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Inside Plant Vogtle: Nuclear expansion

BURKE COUNTY, GA (WTOC) -

They are the first new nuclear plants in the United States in three decades and they are being built right in our backyard.

This month, Georgia Power officials announced that construction on units three and four at Plant Vogtle in Burke County is now 60 percent completed. It’s a massive project that has not been without its share of controversy—delays, cost over-runs and lawsuits just to name a few of the problems.

However, officials say now that they do expect the first new reactor to be online in mid-2019, with the second new reactor coming online in 2020. When completed, the two new reactors along with the two older ones that have been in place since the late 1980’s are expected to provide electricity to one million customers.

WATCH: Plant Vogtle units 3 & 4 time-lapse video from 2009-2015. 

Proponents of the expansion say that the new reactors will provide clean energy for decades—perhaps 60 to 80 years.

“It’s so good to see Southern invest in this.  I tell you this is a technology that works it really does work, “says Mark Rauckhorst, the vice president of construction for Vogtle units three and four. “It is clean power and rom a safety standpoint, I can tell you that these are designed with so many layers of defense in depth.” 

Construction of new nuclear plants dwindled in the United States following the meltdown at Three Mile Island back in 1979. Construction is much different now than when the older nuclear plants were built. 

For one thing, the pieces are assembled in modules inside a huge hangar—the first time that has ever been done, but the biggest difference is the design of the units and the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors that will go inside them. The reactors will be housed inside a containment vessel that is water cooled and then surrounded again by a shield building that provides even more protection.  

Rauckhorst says they were designed to handle any kind of external event—tornadoes, aircraft, missiles—even a Tsunami like the one that Fukushima, Japan back in 2011. 

“It is a passive design.  It does not require active components in that first 72 hours and that’s why when the NRC did a review post Fukushima of this design, they were able to conclude—as we did—that this was safe and would have maintained a safe condition” 

Environmental groups have long expressed concern about the safety of nuclear power and the cost of the expansion—and question whether it is even necessary.

Glenn Carroll heads up Nuclear Watch South, one of the groups still trying to stop the expansion that is taking place at Plant Vogtle. She is concerned about the radioactive waste and the possibility of meltdowns among other things. She also says nuclear plants use an incredible amount of water.

“All those things are avoided by using clean energy like solar and wind,” says Carroll.  

She also doesn’t think it is fair for Georgia Power customers to already be paying for the interest on the expansion. 

“It is cheaper to stop.  As painful as it is, it is cheaper to stop,” she says. 

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols says despite the project running 39 months behind schedule—at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million a day—that the expansion must be finished.  

“Now it has become even more important because the clean power plan of the EPA essentially mandated to us.  It has Georgia essentially needing to cut about 33 percent of our Carbon Dioxide in smokestacks across the state.  This plant has zero CO2.  So this plant is critical to our compliance to the rule.  I think we have got to finish it,” says Echols. 

Georgia Power says it share of the over-runs is now about one billion dollars more than originally forecasted, and by law Georgia Power customers will have to pay for that difference if the Public Service Commission finds that the extra costs were incurred prudently. 

The PSC will begin looking into that later this year. 

Regardless, Echols believes it is still a good deal for consumers. 

“In the end, I still ask the same thing, is it a good deal for rate payers? And it is still a good deal for rate payers? We need to finish it,” said Echols.

If all goes as planned, that would now be mid-2019 for the first new nuclear reactor with the second new one coming online a year later. 

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