Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted February 18, 2010 10:26 am - Updated February 18, 2010 06:07 pm

Even if White House got name wrong, world is now watching Burke County.

If the eyes of the world weren't already on Burke County, they certainly were after this week's announcement by President Obama himself.

Locally, readers of The Augusta Chronicle have been keenly aware - for almost two years - that a $14.5 billion plan to add two new reactors to Plant Vogtle would likely evolve into the first commercial nuclear plant to open in this country in almost three decades.

That is history in the making - right here in Georgia.

Obama all but said so himself in announcing that Vogtle would be the inaugural recipient of a loan guarantee - up to $8.33 billion - under a program devised by Congress to encourage cleaner forms of energy production in a world hoping to become less reliant on coal and gas.

When Obama talks, the world listens - even when he is talking about Burke County.

It was odd, almost eerie, to see footage from an ABC Nightly News crew rolling through Waynesboro and reporting the Vogtle announcement as their lead story. Katie Couric carried the announcement on CBS and other networks all did the same. It received prominent play in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, along with international journals such as the London Guardian and the papers in Paris, Rome - even the Jerusalem Post. This morning's lead editorial in the New York Times focuses on how the Vogtle project differs from Three Mile Island.

As part of our coverage of Tuesday's announcement, I dialed in to a tele-press conference with Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning nuclear physicist who is also President Obama's Energy Secretary.

Others on the line included Reuters, the Associated Press and the New York Times - mostly with questions on the safety of the new generation of reactors.

I was able to ask just one question: why is Vogtle the first?

"I think they were further along in the process; they had already begun some site preparation; and their partners are companies in good standing," Chu replied. "We felt simply that this was a project that had a low probability of default."

There are plenty of similar proposals on the drawing board. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is evaluating 18 such projects as we speak - which would involve 29 new commercial reactors.

But Vogtle is ahead of the pack, having received its Early Site Permit last year - and having moved immediately to start shuffling 4 million cubic yards of Georgia sand and clay to carve out a foundation for the mammoth reactors that will eventually rise high above the Georgia pine forests nearby.

So at this point, it is poised to become the nation's first to move forward. It will be a test case for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new streamlined permitting system. It will be the focus of environmentalists and all their questions and criticisms of nuclear power and the waste it produces. It will be a major employer - up to 3,500 construction jobs, with a staff of 850 to operate the completed project.

In some ways, it will focus global attention on our area much like the Masters Golf Tournament, but it will be a vastly different audience. Augusta is already known for golf, and Burke County - one of Georgia's original eight counties, chartered in 1777 - is more typically known for its county seat of Waynesboro being the "Bird Dog Capital of the World."

It was also interesting that - throughout all the announcements by our president, Secretary Chu and others - the plant site was referred to as "Burke, Ga.," as though it were a town. Of course, we know full well it is a county - a sparsely populated one, with just 21,000 residents.

Even if the White House didn't get the name right, we know the world will still be watching.


Here is a link to the White House Press Office announcement: