For more than two decades, the iconic cooling towers of the second nuclear power plant built in Georgia have loomed high above the Savannah River and the Burke County countryside.
Planning for the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant began in 1971, when Georgia Power Co. set in motion the studies and permitting processes that would lead to one of the last nuclear plants to go online in the United States for many years.
Unit 1 began commercial operation in 1987, and Unit 2 began commercial operation in 1989. The plant's 3,1-acre site became the largest construction project ever undertaken in Georgia. At the peak of construction, more than 14,000 people worked to build the two electric generating units and the array of surrounding support facilities.
Approximately 800 people -- including engineers, mechanics, control room operators, lab technicians, instrument and control technicians, electricians, security officers and others -- continue to oversee the plant's operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Full-time on-site inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have monitored the plant since its completion to ensure it is maintained and operated safely, efficiently and in accordance with established nuclear operating procedures.
Plant Vogtle's massive containment buildings -- with four-foot-thick concrete walls -- house, below ground level, two 355-ton reactor vessels on huge concrete slabs. The twin cooling towers, large structures that stand 548 feet above the surrounding landscape, release nonradioactive water vapor as part of the power plant's cooling process.
Like other electric generating plants, Plant Vogtle has large turbines and generators, a computerized control room, a chemistry lab and high-voltage switchyards. Plant Vogtle generates enough electricity to power about 600,000 households.
Like its predecessor, the Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Plant near Baxley, Ga., Plant Vogtle is jointly owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power Corporation, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities. The plant is named for Alvin W. Vogtle Jr., the chief executive officer of Southern Co., Georgia Power's parent firm, from 1969 through 1983.
The existing plant's price tag, including financing, was about $8.87 billion.
Today, work is under way on the addition of two additional units to Vogtle, costing an estimated $14.5 billion.
Crews are already working on site preparation involving the excavation of 4 million cubic yards of dirt in preparation for the newest nuclear technology.
Vogtle's new units will be Westinghouse's AP1000 reactors, featuring a series of new design and safety features. The two additional units are expected to go online in 2016 and 2017, pending timely permitting approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.