SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — Plant Vogtle’s inaugural role in restarting the nation’s long-dormant nuclear industry will lead to global advances in energy technology, Energy Secretary Steven Chu predicted Wednesday during a visit to Georgia.
“The choice for our country is clear: We can make these technologies today or import them tomorrow,” the Nobel laureate physicist told workers and guests after a tour of the construction site of units 3 and 4.
Vogtle’s new reactors, authorized last week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will create a generation of pioneers who will follow in the footsteps of the scientists in Idaho who used nuclear energy to power four light bulbs 60 years ago, Chu said.
“They laid the groundwork for decades of clean electricity and put the U.S. at the forefront of the nuclear industry,” he said. “The workers here are building on that tradition.”
New commercial power reactors, he said, are just one part of the nation’s thrust to cultivate nuclear power.
In addition to proposing $770 million for nuclear projects in the fiscal year 2013 budget, the Department of Energy has also launched a small modular reactor program to boost manufacturing and promote U.S. technical leadership.
The budget request includes $65 million to help design small modular reactors – a project for which Savannah River Site is being explored as a possible research and manufacturing facility.
“If we can develop this technology and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge in the global clean energy race,” Chu said.
He also announced up to $10 million for research and development in advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies. The money, he said, is intended to promote projects that solve common challenges across the nuclear industry and improve reactor safety, performance and cost competitiveness.
The $14 billion Plant Vogtle expansion is expected to result in units 3 and 4 going online in 2016 and 2017, creating up to 5,000 temporary jobs. The units will also require 800 permanent positions and will generate enough power for 1.4 million people.
Although the AP1000 reactors to be built at Plant Vogtle use the newest technology, the nation remains without a firm plan to solve an old challenge: the fate of spent nuclear fuel from existing and future reactors.
For decades, the government’s plan was to make the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada the nation’s primary permanent storage site for spent commercial nuclear reactor fuel and defense wastes from SRS and similar facilities. The Obama administration canceled that project, after which Chu appointed a panel to explore alternatives.
“That’s why I established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which brought together a distinguished panel of experts to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle,” Chu said, adding that he was creating a “working group” to assess the commission’s recommendations.
Although the commission was directed not to recommend or evaluate specific sites, or take a position on the suitability of the government’s Yucca Mountain site, its members reiterated that a “deep geologic repository” remains essential to nuclear waste disposal and suggested a series of unnamed interim storage sites could safely and temporarily be used to store the materials.
“I am committed to working with Congress to consider the commission’s proposals and develop a long-term strategy for the disposal of nuclear waste,” Chu said.