For many, the end of December marks a slowdown from the regular grind – a break from school, work, and being chained to our smart phones, a rare opportunity to tune out the world.
Perhaps this is why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chose Dec. 22 to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor design, putting Georgia Power Co. one important step closer to beginning construction on the first two nuclear reactors in the United States in 30 years, and putting them right in our backyard at Plant Vogtle, in Burke County, Georgia. They thought no one would notice.
But the decision wasn’t overlooked. Protestors gathered outside Georgia Power Dec. 23 to send a clear message: NO nuclear reactor is healthy, financially viable or safe and we don’t want any (more) in Georgia.
Plant Vogtle, which already operates two reactors, is housed in the small community of Shell Bluff, about 20 miles southeast of Augusta. It sits directly across the Savannah River from the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex built to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Designated a national Superfund site because of its hazardous nuclear waste, SRS’s primary mission today is legacy contamination cleanup.
Adding to the degradation, nuclear power reactors 1 and 2 at Plant Vogtle started operating in 1987 and 1989. An independent study by the Radiation and Public Health Project found that the cancer death rate for children and adolescents in the ten counties surrounding the plant rose 58.5%, between 1987 and 1990 while the national average decreased 14.1%. Cancer rates for adults in Burke County alone rose dramatically as well, most markedly in African Americans (30.7%) all while the national rates decreased.
These high cancer rates likely result less from air pollutants and more from radioactive contaminants in drinking water and food. However, no comprehensive environmental monitoring is happening in Georgia. Residents living downwind and downstream of Plant Vogtle don’t know if their water is safe to drink, if local crops, fish or game are safe to eat - if the land they’ve been living off for generations are actually killing them.
Lack of data provides the perfect excuse for the industry to continue to put profits over the people they’re ignoring. The public, not Georgia Power, is bearing the financial burden and Georgians are getting hit twice. Because the default rate on nuclear loans is over 50%, Wall Street won’t take the risk, so the government stepped in, granting Georgia Power an $8.33 billion taxpayer-funded federal loan guarantee.
Georgia Power is also charging every customer an extra ‘tax’ each month to help finance the construction of the two new reactors (check your bill for the "nuclear construction cost recovery fee.") Already $42 million over budget on the project, the fee is nearly three times as much as originally planned. Ratepayers could be shelling out as much as $15 extra per month by 2015, the company says. Making matters worse, Vogtle reactors 1 and 2 went over budget by about 2000%, and the Public Service Commission struck down a risk sharing mechanism that would hold Georgia Power, not the public, responsible for their cost overages on the next two. Ratepayers can probably expect to be shelling out much more than just $15 per month by the time it’s all said and done.
Even though the industry doesn’t seem to see the consequences of putting the health and financial burden on the public, the safety risk is nearly impossible to ignore. Images of nuclear reactors up in flames, of parents swiping Geiger counters over their radioactive children, of abandoned playgrounds and schools have saturated the media since the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in March – the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, and a dire warning against America’s so-called ‘nuclear renaissance.’
If it goes unheeded and the unthinkable comes to light in Georgia, it won’t be the nuclear industry that pays the ultimate price.
Ms. Hanson, a writer, environmental activist and women’s rights advocate, is public outreach director for the Grant Park-based Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions.