Community near Georgia nuclear plant looks at an uncertain future

Plant Vogtle in Georgia sits just west of the Savannah River. - Grant Blankenship

Plant Vogtle in Georgia sits just west of the Savannah River. – Grant Blankenship

By Sam Whitehead – Marketplace (Listen)

Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy in March, and it’s still unclear what that will mean for the company’s nuclear energy projects in the U.S.

One of those is at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, where two half-built nuclear reactors sit just west of the Savannah River.

Hawkins Rentals is up the road from the plant. Temporary workers live here in rows of recreational vehicles, not far from large cooling towers belching clouds of steam.

“There’s about 45 spaces here that we rent by the month,” said Shane Hawkins, who owns the RV park. “There’s a few trailers that we rent out here by the month as well.”

Those trailers run about $650 a month, and RV sites with electric, water and sewer hookups are about $350. Hawkins also owns the convenience store out front that sells everything from beer to fluorescent safety vests.

He’s a big fan of Georgia Power. It’s the majority owner of Plant Vogtle, which already has two operating nuclear reactors built back in the 1980s.

The utility says it needs the new reactors to meet rising energy demands. They were originally scheduled to start running this year. But as of late, there’s a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the project.

“I don’t want anything bad for the plant, but obviously the delays have been good for me, because it’s extended the time I can be in business here,” Hawkins said. “At least be in business with a captive audience.”

Hawkins said he knew that “captive audience” would only be around during construction. Whenever that stops, he hopes he’ll have enough business to keep his store busy, even if his RV park isn’t.

Just up the road, Krystal Chance also depends on the plant for her business.

“It’s the truth. It is,” she said. “The longer it takes them to built it, the longer we have job security here.”

Chance owns the Kountry Peach, a restaurant popular with Vogtle workers. At lunchtime, vehicles plastered with the names of the contractors working on the expansion roll in and out of its gravel parking lot.

The expansion project employs about 6,000 people who could lose their jobs if construction stops.

Jacob Sauls is one of them. He works for a contractor that’s clearing land for the new reactors. His company works throughout the region, so he’s not concerned about this job going away.

“We have jobs in seven other states that we work on,” Sauls said. “I have not had any sleepless nights over this. We’re pretty good. We’re not too worried.”

Construction at the plant will continue through the end of the month while Georgia Power renegotiates its contract with Westinghouse and works with state regulators. After that, it’s not clear what will happen.

Jacob Hawkins, a spokesman for Georgia Power, said it’s still too early to predict Vogtle’s fate.

“We’re going to ultimately do what’s in the best interest of the state and our customers and our company,” Hawkins said. “So it’s too early to commit one way or the other, but we’re looking at all options as we go through this process.”

Tonya Bonitatibus, who runs the conservation group Savannah Riverkeeper, worries what those options could mean for the nearby waterway.

She pilots a boat up the Savannah River to the spot where Vogtle pulls in water to keep its reactors cool.

Her biggest concern? If Georgia Power decides to finish the project, it will focus on cutting costs.

“And usually environmental mitigation is where that happens first,” Bonitatibus said. “So, I would say that this probably leaves the environmental issues in a little bit more of a hairy situation.”

Still, she believes someone needs to look at Vogtle’s price tag. Georgia Power customers all over the state have seen charges for the project on their power bills for years.

“You know, it’s taking money from us and investing it in a risky project that may or may not ever give us any benefit,” said Liz Coyle, who runs the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch.

Coyle said now’s the chance for the state’s utility regulators to cap how much Georgia Power can charge ratepayers for Vogtle. She said the utility has already collected almost $2 billion from its customers for the project.

“They’ve basically got a blank check from the ratepayers of Georgia,” Coyle said. “We need to tear up that blank check.”

That would force Georgia Power to decide whether finishing the Vogtle expansion on its own dime is really worth it.

And the company doesn’t have to look far for a lesson on the perils of investing in nuclear energy. Westinghouse blames its own financial woes on nuclear power projects like Vogtle.

Source: Marketplace

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