Nuclear Power in Georgia: A Closer Look at Plant Vogtle
The following article is provided by UNC’s Powering A Nation journalism team.
Our focus on emerging energy issues has carried us to Burke County, Ga., a sparsely populated community of more than 22,000, located 25 miles south of Augusta. Burke County now finds itself at the center of the Obama administration’s emphasis on nuclear power as a viable answer to America’s energy predicament.
President Obama announced in February that Southern Company would receive $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the nation’s first nuclear reactors in 30 years. Plant Vogtle already houses two nuclear reactors. Unit 1 went online in 1987, and Unit 2 went online in 1989.
The current project serves as a $14 billion capital investment in Georgia and promises to bring more than 3,500 construction jobs and more than 800 permanent jobs.
Construction on Plant Vogtle’s site began in April 2009 and is projected to last until 2017. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants a Combined Construction and Operating License in late 2011 or early 2012 as expected, the project will bring Unit 3 online in 2016 and Unit 4 online in 2017.
Mike McCracken, spokesman for Southern Nuclear Public Affairs, said Plant Vogtle would be the only nuclear power plant in the U.S. with four reactors.
We did find some individuals in the Burke County community who seem skeptical of bringing more nuclear reactors close to their community. They expressed concern at how much of the land where they used to roam without worry—Plant Vogtle has a 3,100 acre site along the Savannah River–is now surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs. They lamented the fact that they could no longer fish in the Savannah River for fear of pollution. And they used the recent oil spill in the Gulf to discuss the uncertainty of what happens if there is an accident at Plant Vogtle.
Despite those concerns, George DeLoach, the mayor of Waynesboro, Burke County’s seat, said that in an economic downturn, the construction of the two nuclear reactors means money for the county. Already, the plant provides 70 percent, or $25 million, of the county’s tax base. DeLoach said Units 3 and 4 could mean a doubling of that amount to between $50 and $60 million.
And, DeLoach says, the jobs that are coming to Burke County help quell consternation a resident may currently hold. “Because of the economic situation that we’re in now, jobs mean more to them than the environment,” he said. “Everybody wants a good job.”
How dangerous are the towers?
Cooling towers are an iconic symbol of nuclear energy. Visible from a dozen or more miles away, they are, for some, the representation of an unwanted neighbor; for others, they’re beacons of a clean energy future.
Despite the cooling tower’s intrusive appearance, it is probably the most benign part of a nuclear power plant, based on what we recently learned during a tour of Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia. The towers can appear daunting, but when it comes down to that part of the nuclear energy process, it’s nothing but water.
Facts about cooling towers:
- Nuclear reactions do not occur in the cooling towers.
- The actual reactor is typically enclosed in a cement building that is built to withstand natural disasters and other threats.
- They are not just used for nuclear power plants.
- Many coal plants and other industrial facilities that boil water and use steam to turn a turbine use them to cool water before releasing it into the lake or river from which it came.
- There are nuclear power plants that do not use cooling towers, but instead utilize other methods for cooling water vapor into liquid.
- The substance that billows out of the top of a cooling tower is just water in the form of vapor.
- The water that is released never comes in contact with any radioactive material. At Plant Vogtle, that water is brought into the plant from the Savannah River through pipes. It is used to cool down the steam that turns the turbine so it can condense and be used in the process again. Because of the high temperatures, some of the river water is released as steam, while the rest flows back into the river.
- One cooling tower at Plant Vogtle consumes about 15,000 gallons of water per minute.
- Between the two, that’s 43.2 million gallons per day.
- With the addition of two more towers to accommodate the two new reactors they have planned, the plant will use 86.4 million gallons of water a day.
- According to Plant Vogtle’s website, their current reactors use “1 percent of the average annual flow of the Savannah River. Adding two additional units at the site would increase that amount to 2 percent.”
Though the cooling tower is relatively gentle in nature, it is capable of interrupting even the most picturesque landscape. For Jessey, Chris and me, this was our first time beholding one at such close proximity. The photographers in the group that visited Burke County had fun juxtaposing the towers with the beautiful scenery we found there.