Why you should care
America’s faltering nuclear promise has global implications.
As Tonya Bonitatibus steers her boat along the Savannah River, she reflects on the dualities of the murky waterway she’s pledged to protect. It’s caught between the Palmetto State and the Peach State. Upstream, lake country; downstream, free-flowing river. Then there’s the nuclear equation. To her right loom the twin towers of the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant and, in the distance, two more under construction. To her left is the Savannah River Site — the nation’s largest site for deconstructing nuclear material — where massive reptiles slink into the warm water beneath “No Trespassing” signs. “Big-ass radioactive alligators,” she calls out as she speeds by.
This backcountry infrastructure is just one stark reminder of the country’s national debate over nuclear energy, one that is heating up, particularly in the Southeast. Two-fifths of the nation’s nuclear reactors — nearly 40 — operate in 10 states across the region. Four more are scheduled, the first to be built by private industry in about three decades, including the aforementioned ones in Georgia and a pair at the Virgil C. Summer plant an hour north in South Carolina. While developers and utility companies promise clean, cost-effective energy by 2021, local ratepayers are tiring of decade-long projects beset by mismanagement and delays. And the future of nuclear along this river has widespread implications — even meriting a shout from a certain Russian president.
Just a few years ago, nuclear seemed destined for a renaissance. Both the V.C. Summer and Vogtle projects were supported by state utilities and contracted in 2008 to Westinghouse, a nuclear construction company owned by Japan-based Toshiba. Their AP1000 reactors were considered the most advanced to date, ostensibly easier to build and maintain and more impervious to plane crashes, earthquakes and the type of electrical outage that caused the meltdown in Fukushima. Concerns about climate change and fear over U.S. foreign oil dependence partly led the Bush administration to grant billions of dollars in loan guarantees and tax credits to nuclear projects.
The utilities, as penance, need to quit standing in the way of solar, energy efficiency and wind projects.
Leslie Minerd, founder, South Carolinians Against Monetary Abuse
However, an unexpected decrease in electric demand coupled with lower petroleum prices is slashing at nuclear profits, experts say. The competing interests of safety and construction have at times resulted in crippling delays, showing how difficult it is for private companies to build nuclear plants. Almost a decade later, the South Carolina and Georgia plants are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. And in March, Westinghouse announced it would be entering bankruptcy (so far, work will continue on both projects, Westinghouse tells OZY, while declining to answer other questions). It follows a national trend of private industry biting off more than it can chew with nuclear. New Orleans–based companies Entergy and Dominion have cited concerns over profitability while shuttering reactors in recent years, in New York, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Nuclear utilities generally stay financially viable in Southern states that protect them from competition, according to Jim Pierobon, an energy strategist: He points out that five Entergy reactors remain solvent in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Yet that theory doesn’t easily explain the struggles in South Carolina and Georgia, where legislators have played nice. Local utilities have repeatedly raised rates to help fund the projects. SCANA Corporation, which owns 55 percent of the V.C. Summer plant, has bumped rates nine times since 2009, an 18 to 20 percent increase by one lawmaker’s estimate. Georgia Power, which owns half of the Vogtle plant, has increased monthly charges at least $5 for the typical consumer since 2010.
The delays have stoked anger in the affected communities — and now they’re finding ways to fight back. Georgians are circulating a petition to halt further utility hikes. And in South Carolina, activists dressed as gangsters protested outside the state capitol in February, flashing a large check representing the mounting bill — $14 billion and counting, they said — on ratepayers. “The utilities, as penance, need to quit standing in the way of solar, energy efficiency and wind projects,” says Leslie Minerd, who founded South Carolinians Against Monetary Abuse (SCAMA) soon after the Westinghouse bankruptcy was announced. In April, Palmetto State lawmakers proposed a bill to hold utilities more accountable for runaway projects. “I am pro-nuclear,” Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, lead sponsor of H.B. 4022, told the Aiken Standard, adding, “You can’t expect the consumer to foot the bill forever.”
Those on the ground remain pessimistic about the project’s progress. Downing cheap beers and smoking cigarettes outside a local hangout in Jenkinsville, plant workers at V.C. Summer grouse about a culture of mismanagement. Red tape can turn three-hour jobs into three-week affairs, they say. And work packages for laborers — the bare minimum to be done on any day — were scarce amid legal hangups. “In the eight months I worked there, I got four hours put in,” says a carpenter who worked at V.C. Summer from October 2015 until June 2016 (he, and current employees, spoke anonymously for fear of professional backlash). Westinghouse declined to comment.
Those setbacks threaten to undermine U.S. leadership on nuclear energy, which some analysts believe will sour global interest as well. Even before last year’s election, world leaders were casting wary gazes at American decisions. After the Obama administration pulled the plug on an unfinished Aiken nuclear facility in 2016, Russia’s Vladimir Putin suspended a 16-year-old deal to dispose of plutonium at the Savannah River Site. The Trump administration has expressed interest in bolstering nuclear, with its transition team even asking the Energy Department what it could do to slow the shutdown of plants, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg last December.
For some skeptical Americans, there’s a simple solution to waiting for a nuclear fix that never seems to arrive: Move on. Within the outer city limits of Columbia, Suzie Garland and Shelly Bon have created a self-sufficient escape. Asparagus shoots jut out of their organic garden, the smell of sweet peas fill the air and 32 solar panels power their lifestyle. “My energy bill has been zero dollars for months,” Suzie says, holding her fiancé’s hand while sitting on a porch swing overlooking their pristine lake. “And still they expect us to pay for V.C. Summer,” Shelly says, chuckling. SCANA did not respond to requests for comment.
Peering beneath the surface of this cataclysm, there were persistent untruthful narratives.
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