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By Staff on Jun 9, 2010 with 30 responses

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.


Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, provides 15 percent of Georgia's power through Plant Vogtle. Plant Vogtle will be the first nuclear license to be issued in 30 years if granted a license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it will be the only site in the U.S. with four reactors. Photo by Lauren Frohne

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.


The twin cooling towers stand 548 feet high, roughly equal to a 55-story building and taller than the Statue of Liberty (456 feet). Photo by Jessey Dearing

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?


Plant Vogtle's twin cooling towers stand on Southern Company's 3,000 acres of land in Burke County, Georgia. In the foreground, land has been cleared for the construction of Vogtle's two new reactors and cooling towers. Photo by Lauren Frohne

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.”

Two cement domes enclose the nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. Radioactive materials and waste are housed in the domes and conjoined buildings. At its narrowest part, the cement dome is three feet thick. Some parts of the dome are as thick as nine feet. Photo by Lauren Frohne

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.


Predominantly rural, Burke County is one of the largest counties in Georgia in terms of square miles, but it has a population of only about 24,000. Photo by Lauren Frohne

Written by Chris Saunders and Lauren Frohne under the auspicies of UNC’s Powering A Nation and shared with Consumer Energy Report.

  1. By backriver on June 9, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    So…that’s 90 something million gallons a day from the 4th most toxic river in US….a river that provides drinking water to people of two states that already cannot clean it’s self……and which will surly be needed far more in the future than now……GREAT IDEA!!…..not.

  2. By CT on June 10, 2010 at 8:19 am

    The cooling towers that will be built to support the 2 new Units will be about a 1/3rd of the size of the your normal cooling tower, and look more like a small, 6 story, building. Also, if the river is the 4th most toxic in the US, 2 additional units will be doing it a favor by having the toxic water run through the plant, be boiled, kill the bacteria, and fresh/ clean water recycled back out into the river.

  3. By Margaret Harding on June 10, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Let’s consider how many 400 ft tall wind mills would be required to make up the energy from Vogtle 3-4 and what THAT would do to the natural beauty of the area. Each plant will generate ~1300 MW at a 90% capacity. At 2MW per wind mill and ~25% capacity factor, that would be about 5000 Windmills. I’ll take a couple of cooling towers anyday.

  4. By russ on June 10, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Derate the wind turbines even farther to account for the production when it is not needed. Maybe 10% at best for a capacity factor.

  5. By Jack Mac on June 10, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Margaret Harding:

    > At 2MW per wind mill and ~25% capacity factor, that would be about 5000 Windmills. I’ll take a couple of cooling towers anyday.

    3MW @ 30% is more realistic with modern turbines, so that’s ~2900 turbines. And there’s no need to ring fence 3,100 acres because there is zero chance of wind turbines polluting land or rivers. Also, wind turbines don’t need water – so that’s ~100 million gallons of water each day saved.

    So, there’s the choice:

    1. massively expensive, centralized, slow to build, dangerous, water thirsty energy

    2. clean, safe, decentralized renewable energy that requires no water

  6. By paul-n on June 10, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    If we want to be realistic about wind as an alternative, lets look at some real wind data.

    You can find Georgia on the US wind energy map here: (http://www.windpoweringamerica…..stateab=ga),

    and you will see that Georgia, like most of the southeast, is not a very windy place.

    This data has been prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and is the most up to date guide for wind potential.  Have a look and N & S Dakota to see what a good wind resource state looks like.

    Fortunately, the calculations for cost effective wind power have already been done, shown in the graph on the lower part of that page.

    They assume, with today’s turbine technology, that turbines are cost effective when they can achieve a capacity factor of 30% or more.  The chart shows that if we use 100m towers (instead of the normal 80m ones), the entire state has a capacity potential for about 300MW.   If we are willing to accept a 25% capacity factor, then we can get 2000MW.

    So, we need higher towers (more $) and we have lower capacity factor (less production per turbine per year) which means, it is going to be expensive.

    2000MW at 25% capacity factor is an average of 500MW.  This is about half of one nuclear reactor unit.  Looking at it another way, we need the wind energy of four Georgia’s to equal the output of the proposed new 2-unit nuclear plant.

    Add to this the fact that wind is intermittent, and for many wind farms, 30% of the time they are producing at less than 10% of capacity, and 10% of the time they are less than 4%.  This means you can use wind to save fuel from other generator types (coal, nat gas) when the wind is blowing, but you can’t decommission these other generating plants because you need something in reserve for when the wind is not blowing, which, depending on how you define it, is up to 30% of the time, and most often during the daytime peak demand periods.

    So now that you have some real wind data, you can resume your discussion about what it takes to displace these nuclear plants – wind alone cannot do it.

  7. By MIchael Corder on June 10, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Just to be clear on the water thing. The plant is not consuming all of the water. Although I cannot find the actual numbers, the vast majority of the water used is returned to the river after cooling. A relatively small percentage is lost as vapor.

  8. By paul-n on June 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    The cooling water loss to evaporation is about 5% of the incoming total, or about 4.3 million gallons per day for the four units.

  9. By russ on June 11, 2010 at 2:00 am

    The water number I have down for a nuclear plant is 1.88 liters per kW

    When the wind turbines produce power but there is not a consumer one can not take full credit for power generated.

    What the right number (%) is will depend on what they have to turn down to accomodate the wind. I was reading a report by the BPA that it is a wild ride trying to keep up with the wind. The BPA probably has a best case situation due to the large amount of hydro.

    The results of the article about the BPA was that the capacity factor for wind has to include a usability component. 


  10. By paul-n on June 11, 2010 at 11:56 am

    I think I read that same article, as I recall, they think the practical limit for wind is about 30%, unless it is directly coupled with storage.

    Lots of MW in the middle of the night is no good if you can’t use it.  I think there will be opportunity for some agile commercial/industrial customers to take advantage of cheap night time wind (cold storage, air liquefiers, etc).  BUt, the wind industry must come up with it’s own solution to this issue – at the moment they just sidestep it, or expect everyone else (the grid operator, other generators) to accommodate them.



  11. By Thomas on June 14, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Paul: the Bertz law is around 59 percent efficiency for a perfect wind turbine. My understanding of what limits a realistic one to the 30′s  is that the generator has to be built for specific range of wind speeds. Regardless, wind is not economic in GA or anywhere else in the south east.  The northern plains especially the Dakotas has some of the best onshore wind in the world.  I think Ive read that in the neighborhood of 160k turbines could provide 20 percent of current demand.The best feature of wind is you can farm or ranch under it.  From a USDA perspective, wind gives the farmer a hedge against higher energy costs without affecting food prices. Now I wonder what could be charged in the middle of the night or whenever the wind was blowing….    

  12. By paul-n on June 14, 2010 at 2:28 pm


    The Betz criteria is indeed 59%, and yes, real performance will always be less than this, for a number of reasons, and variable wind speed is one of them. BUt, the turbine efficiency doesn’t really matter as much as you might think.  A more efficient turbine will produce more power output, for a given blade diameter, at a given wind speed.  With a less efficient turbine, you can make up for it by enlarging the blade diameter, or using a higher tower.  Since the “fuel” (wind) is free, efficiency of using it is not the top criteria.  I would gladly trade away some efficiency in return for some measure of control over the load curve, and this is exactly what storage systems do.  Only problems there is the expense of storing and retrieving electricity is usually more than the electricity itself.

    What is really important is the total (nameplate) capacity, and the capacity factor (average production) you achieve, and when you achieve it (day or night)which depends on the site, tower height etc.

    Agreed that the south east is not a great spot, and Dakota is.

    Also agreed that to find some discretionary loads that can use middle of the night wind power is a good thing.  When you say charging, I presume you mean electric vehicles.  But we can;t drive all the EV’s to the Dakotas each night, and they are as far away from the najor population centres (east, south and west coasts) as you can get and still be in the country.  And, we are at least a decade away from having any meaningful number of EV’s.  Not only that, there is plenty of off peak capacity for them already, no wind turbines required.

    Producing even more power in the middle of the night is solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

    Meeting, reliably, peak power demands IS an existing problem, one which nukes, coal, hydro, in fact anything BUT wind, is much better suited to solving.  

    Of course, doing demand side management to reduce/shift peak loads would help out too, but this is much harder to implement.

  13. By Kit P on June 14, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Steam power plants produce electricity by boiling high pressure water then expanding the high pressure steam through a turbine.  The steam in the condenser is at very low pressure and is cooled slightly by flowing over tubes with slightly cooler water flowing inside the tubes.  The steam is condensed so the pure water can be pumped back to the boiler.  The colder the water, the higher the thermal efficiency of the turbine.


    The slightly cooler water flowing inside the tubes is luke warm when at most when leaving the condenser.  Direct cooling is where a sufficient quantity of cooler water is available such as pumping it out of the ocean and then returning luke warm water.


    One way of cooling the ‘cooling’ the cooling water is by building a large manmade lake.  This also creates popular fishing and recreation areas.  A second way is evaporative cooling using forced draft or natural circulation cooling towers.  Evaporative cooling is the same principle that our bodies use when we work hard on a hot day.


    The important point is this how base load power is produced.  The environmental impact is the same even if the heat sources is geothermal, biomass, or solar thermal.  A 12 MWe cooling tower is not very awesome compared 1200 MWe cooling tower because it is 1000 times bigger.


  14. By moiety on June 15, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Kit P said:

    One way of cooling the ‘cooling’ the cooling water is by building a large manmade lake.  This also creates popular fishing and recreation areas.  


    This is an idea that I extremely like. Just south of Leipzig Germany former coal open cast mines have been converted to lakes and it really creatles a stunning amenity.

  15. By paul-n on June 15, 2010 at 3:21 am

    You have to be a little bit careful making lakes out of old mines, as the walls have a habit of collapsing occasionally.  A town in Australia did this, and a wall collapsed (underwater) while people were boating on it, and the disturbances sucked a boat under and two people died.  So, you need to make sure the slopes are made safe first.  Other than that, I agree, it;s a good idea.

    Of course, of you want to get get really creative, you could do something like this: 

    (a rehabilitated quarry and cement works site in Victoria, BC, now the world famous Butchart Gardens)

    • By Don Lenski on March 16, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      The garden idea is superb !!! Looks great ; a wonderful plan.

  16. By Kit P on June 15, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Here is an article about how a new nuke in China is handling water issues.……06101.html

    “A desalination system to produce 10,000 cubic metres of potable water per day could be installed at Hongyanhe nuclear power plant to help meet operation and living needs, CGNPC said.”

    One of the indicators of good management is using a little imagination to make the area around the power plant an asset to the community.


    Butchart Gardens is an example.  It is one of the places I went as a child and have taken my children.  A must see when visiting the PNW.  The utility that makes my electricity has worked with a local zoo to turn an old coal strip mine into a ‘safari’ style zoo in Ohio.

  17. By Thomas on June 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Paul: An important point has been left out about larger turbines. The industry rule of thumb is to put 5 times the diameter of the turbine between towers. This keeps neighboring turbines out of each other’s “wind shadow”. Power generated per land area = power per turbine/ land area per turbine. Diameter squared appears in the numerator and denominator. Only wind speed (which increases with tower height) determines the amount of power produced not the size of the turbine. It’s like collecting water in your backyard by filling it with 20 gallon buckets or a swimming pool. The amount of water collected is the same. The turbine size and tower height chosen for a wind farm comes down to $/kw. Bigger turbines are built because they can get stronger winds at higher heights and they’re economies of scale outweigh cheaper more numerous turbines.

    I think wind power should be expanded because it has the lowest environmental effects of anything available (sorry birds). We need all the power we can get, however wind can only be a role player in our energy portfolio. It is a good match with EVs because you can have smart chargers that pull when supply is elevated. This cuts down on energy storage considerations. Lets say we have 5 million EVs by 2020 each with a 30 kwh battery, that’s a lot of variable demand. Also the owners of these vehicles may value zero carbon electricity more than the average user. Power transmission is going to have to be expanded in all cases. Plants of all types have a hard time getting sited near population centers. PV Solar is becoming a good option for offsetting peak summer demand in most places. They peak right as the A/C switches on. Nuclear could throttle up and down but I don’t think the public is ready for that.

  18. By paul-n on June 16, 2010 at 4:41 am

    wind is a good match with EVs because you can have smart chargers that pull when supply is elevated.

    Well, yes, but with all the existing off peak capacity we can handle EV’s without needing wind, or new transmission lines (though it will need more fuel).

    PV Solar is becoming a good option for offsetting peak summer demand in most places.

    A much better option is reducing such demand for A/C in the first place, there is much that can be done there.  BUt PV is not an economic, large scale solution, either in  utility plants or on rooftops.  It is fine for those who want to pay much more, though presently they are being subsidised by everyone else to do so.  For a fraction of the cost of a PV system, you could build a ventilated “shade roof” over the real roof, and you would cut down the the A/C demands dramatically.

    if people had to pay the true cost f the PV’s there would be a lot less of the being installed.  If we have a real TOU pricing system, and PV’s are economic, then fine, but they have a hell of a long way to go before they constitute any meaningful part of peak generation capacity.

    And I am not sold on “we need all the power we can get”.  There is no electricity shortage today, there is a shortage of liquid fuels.  Almost every successful renewable energy system produces electricity (except ethanol and biodiesel, and the jury is still out whether these are “successful”), and we are not short of it, or pof the various fuels to make it.


    That said, I think we can still work to reduce our usage, or at least make the most out of what we do use.  A resource not wasted can then be put to more productive use.  Save enough electricity and you can open an aluminium smelter, or steel recycling mill, etc.  Presently. much of this sort of production is moving overseas.

    For wind, I always come back to solving the storage problem and/or finding opportunistic loads that customers are willing and able to shift to off peak.  EV’s as a “load” don;t exist yet, and won;t be a “big”load for some time, so we need to find something else.  There is a huge opportunity there, for someone…


  19. By Thomas on June 16, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Paul: “All the energy we can get” is in the context that there is political will (in states like CA) behind “cleaner” sources of energy. We could simply build coal power plants to deal with the expected 35% increase in demand over the next 25 years, but in order to reach environmental goals we need all the “clean” energy we can get.
    Agree totally that best payback comes from conservation. The cheapest power plant is the one you don’t have to build. In Japan there are heat pumps that get in the upper 40’s in efficiency. We should be moving in that direction here for A/C.

  20. By russ on June 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

    @ Thomas – What heat pumps are you refering to?

  21. By paul-n on June 16, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Well, California’s version of clean energy, other than rooftop solar,  is to buy it from someone else.  Anyone trying to build anything, like a a wind farm or solar plant in the Mojave, gets tied up in red tape and lawsuits, and eventually decide to relocate their project to Texas where they just “get ‘er done”.  I am not sure there is that much political will in Ca to change this approach anytime soon.


    Russ, I think he is referring to the CO2 heat pumps, like the Eco Cute

    They have a heating COP of 3 to 3.8 which is as good as the best refridgerant type ones, like the Fujitsu

    Don;t know what the 40% efficiency means though.  

    of course, if the houses were built smarter and smaller to start with, this wouldn’t be a problem…

  22. By russ on June 16, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Hi Paul – What I have seen on the CO2 based heat pumps (Eco Cute) the COP is lower than a new high efficiency heat pump using R410A – or else I am remembering wrong.Have to look back through the data sheets I have stored (hidden) somewhere on the drive.

    The Eco Cute big advantage is that they stay efficient at lower ambient temperatures meaning they are a good solution farther north than the conventoinal type.

    Smaller houses or houses built well insulated and so you can heat or cool whatever portion you want.

    The past couple of days it would have been more comfortable at night with the AC on but we didn’t use it last year and I don’t expect to this year either – lows at 25 deg C.


  23. By Thomas on June 16, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Air-source heat pumps. A refrigerator is built on the same principle. The most efficient ones are made by companies like Mitsubishi and Fujitsu . I misspoke about efficiency, the energy savings could be in the 40% range. It can heat and cool. The heating side of the equation is where it really shines b/c any type of combustion heat maxes out at 100%. While a heat pump can be anywhere from 300% to 600% (the coefficient of performance). This comes at a higher cost up front cost, of course, and extremely cold climates are not compatible.

  24. By Thomas on June 16, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Paul: You make my point about population centers and power plants with California. Transmission lines along with a smarter grid will have to “import” energy into them from the boonies. Southern California Edison, however, does have in-state plans to build the largest solar and wind installations in the country. We’ll see if it happens.

    A new home built today uses much less energy and is more comfortable than a house built 20 years ago. Given the right incentives, some political will, and realistic expectations we can have big foot lifestyles with ballerina energy foot prints.

  25. By russ on June 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Thomas said:

    Air-source heat pumps. A refrigerator is built on the same principle. The most efficient ones are made by companies like Mitsubishi and Fujitsu . I misspoke about efficiency, the energy savings could be in the 40% range. It can heat and cool. The heating side of the equation is where it really shines b/c any type of combustion heat maxes out at 100%. While a heat pump can be anywhere from 300% to 600% (the coefficient of performance). This comes at a higher cost up front cost, of course, and extremely cold climates are not compatible.


    Air source heat pumps/inverters – that is what I have in my new house – an efficient ASHP should have a COP of 3.5 – good for both heating and cooling.

    That means that if the electricity bill for resistance heating was 100 USD then the heat pump bill would be 29 USD – as the COP increases the cost savings affect reduces – as in a COP of 4 gives a bill of 25 USD.

    The upfront cost, for an ASHP, is not much different. For a GSHP (ground source heat pump) the upfront costs are significantly more and the increase in COP is not much – maybe 4 or 4.5.

    The Eco Cute units (CO2 based) are efficient to a lower ambient temperature but I don’t remember their limits offhand.

  26. By paul-n on June 18, 2010 at 12:44 am

    We are getting a bit off topic here, but those Eco Cute units are good to -20C.  As a refridgerator they are not quite as efficient as R410A, but as a heat pump, they are better, and at lower temps, which is when they are needed most.


    I think the biggest advantage is that they can be air source, and in small units, and avoid the ridiculous cost of doing ground source, especially as a retrofit.

  27. By paul-n on June 18, 2010 at 12:52 am


    Given the right incentives, some political will, and realistic expectations we can have big foot lifestyles with ballerina energy foot prints.

    I have to diasgree here, because this leads to viewing the bigfoot lifestyle as a “right”, as epitomnised by Dick Cheney’s “the American way of life is not negotiable”

    Australia does not have such a big foot, but has just as good a quality of life, as does Sweden, Finland, Switzerland etc.  

    Al Gore claimed his 6000sq.ft house was OK because he ran it on green energy.  But just because the energy is green, does that make it OK to waste it. Same applies to an SUV on ethanol.

    I think the downsizing will happen, because the younger generation are rejecting supersizing.  They (mostly) regard an iphone as more important than a car.  Conspicuous consumption (of anything other than cell minutes and text messages) is out, often not by choice,.

    We will not see them buying the large houses in the exurbs unless they have no other choice. 

  28. By rrapier on June 19, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Kit, I know you got the memo because I saw you whining about it on the other blog. Just so we are clear here – you can’t post here – anywhere – for the next week. Complain more and I will extend. I am not going to tolerate you slandering me here or anywhere. As I have said before, you are entitled to your own opinions and you are free to debate facts. What you aren’t entitlted to do is make personal attacks, and you don’t get a free pass just because you did it somewhere else. Especially bad is the fact that you continue to lie and say I don’t produce anything. So for trying to smear me – and lying to do so – you shall accept the consequences. You want to start complaining about that and it gets worse from there.

    You have been given a lot of rope with which to hang yourself. Probably far more than most people would have allowed you. But sooner or later you were going to do just that, because that is who you are. Further posts over the next week will be deleted without additional comment. Think about it next time you take your clown show on the road.


  29. By russ on June 22, 2010 at 9:33 am

    @ Robert – You are a saint for patience – no one in the world has more!

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