Just when we thought nuclear power might be on a comeback, well, stuff happened. Only time will tell if Georgia and South Carolina can “jumpstart” a nuclear renaissance. Let’s hope we can because low-cost baseload energy is a key to economic growth.
This was illustrated dramatically for me while I was in Germany this summer meeting with numerous officials including an economic minister for the country. As he told me how BMW was having their upcoming light-weight electric car carbon-fiber body manufactured in South Carolina, he said, “The United States is about to enjoy mass re-industrialization because of your cheap energy prices.” I couldn’t help but smile. He went on to tell me of other European companies setting up shop in the United States for the same reason.
But reality is that “new” nuclear power continues to sputter. Remember back about five years ago? States were working hard with private utilities to possibly build new commercial reactors. Then, we had the accident at Fukushima which brought more regulatory uncertainty. At the same time, our economy was in recession with natural gas prices continuing to drop primarily due to “fracking.”
Meanwhile, in our “Silicon Valley of Nuclear Power,” the work continued because a course had been charted. Georgia was building two new nuke units at Plant Vogtle. SCANA was building two identical units at V.C. Summer Plant, near Jenkinsville, S.C. And in between them sat the 310 square-mile Savannah River Site, a highly-protected federal facility run by the Department of Energy, where a special MOX facility is being constructed amidst a sea of other national security-related projects.
There are three good reasons we need to complete each of these projects, despite the cost issues each are experiencing right now.
First, anything remotely related to nuclear means jobs — and many of them good-paying jobs. Twelve thousand people work at SRS, 800 private sector jobs at V.C. Summer and another 800 at Vogtle. The last two figures will double once the new units come on line. Add to that the cumulative construction jobs which should peak out at more than 7,000, and the impact is enormous. Remember, jobs let you buy houses, cars, clothes and widgets — and cheap energy is a magnet for manufacturing these as the Germans testified.
Second, nuclear power is a great investment for southeastern states especially. It gives us 24/7 base load power, provides grid stability, serves as a hedge against volatile natural gas prices—and all this without any of the emissions associated with conventional fuels. The two new Vogtle units represent $4 billion in economic value for Georgia ratepayers over the next-best available option — fracked gas, and you know how cheap that is.
Third, nuclear recycling and reprocessing allows us to convert the plutonium that once powered cold-war nuclear warheads into fuel that ultimately powers our homes. What a trade-off! That is where the SRS MoX site comes in and why President Obama should not end the funding for it as he is threatening to do.
The mixed-oxide fuel factory, or MoX, will recycle weapons-grade plutonium into material that can be used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity. And not too far away, the famed “H” Canyon facility as it is called at SRS, demonstrates reprocessing taking old nuclear waste and making usable material from it. These successes might help launch similar commercial facilities that can be built to handle the large inventory of commercial waste we currently have around our country. We need to take this step.
But the President is getting cold feet on this. The MoX facility, which admittedly is way over budget, was started in 2007 and is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Though the cost is high, the benefits are immense as we evaluate the best way to handle these nuclear materials. We must move forward responsibly.
We can’t turn our back when it comes to nuclear power. We have smart people who can solve the difficulties associated with this incredible resource. Let’s move America forward.
Tim Echols serves on the Georgia Public Service Commission.