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President Obama put his stamp of approval this week on the reemergence of nuclear power in the United States, announcing that the Energy Department will back the construction of two reactors in Georgia with $8.3 billion in loan guarantees. The Southern Company and two partners will build the twin reactors, which will be located in Burke County.
If it is completed, the project will be the first successful nuclear power initiative in the U.S. since 1973. The 1979 radiation leak at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, PA, and an explosion in building costs for reactors put the nuclear power industry in mothballs for the past three decades. A few years after the scare in Pennsylvania, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo ordered Long Island Lighting Co.’s Shoreham nuke plant dismantled when LILCO failed to produce an evacuation plan for the New York metropolitan area. The Shoreham plant, about 20 miles east of the nation’s largest city and costing nearly $5 billion, was essentially complete and within weeks of loading in fuel rods when the project was canceled.
Globally, the nuclear power industry also took a major hit when a Russian reactor blew up in 1986 in Chernobyl, rendering the surrounding area a wasteland and sending a plume of radioactive gas as far as the Arctic. However, several nations, most notably France, forged ahead and constructed dozens of reactors that today provide a majority of their electricity generation.
In a speech in Lanham, MD, President Obama hailed the Georgia project as a major clean energy initiative that would eliminate the 16 million tons of carbon emissions a comparable coal-burning plant would produce, the equivalent of taking more than 3 million cars off American roads. The Obama Administration has adopted a more favorable view of nuclear power in an effort to win bipartisan support for its sweeping energy legislation, which includes a controversial cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite the promised financing from the federal government, the Georgia reactors still must win design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose staff reportedly has raised questions about whether changes made to harden the reactor containment vessels against aircraft attack might make them more vulnerable to earthquakes.
The builders hope to have a license to construct and run the plants by the end of next year, under a process that is geared to avoid the huge cost overruns that plagued and ultimately doomed nuclear power initiatives in the 1970s and ‘80s. The Southern Company applied two years ago to the NRC for permission to build and operate the reactors adjacent to its existing Vogtle 1 and 2 reactors.
The loan guarantees are being provided by an $18.5 billion fund authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. President Obama proposed this month to triple that amount. Currently, there are 104 operating nuclear power reactors in the U.S., but all of the reactors ordered after 1973 were canceled.