It’d be foolish, and environmentally unsound, to walk away from nuclear

Given the recently announced cancellation of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s Units 2 and 3, and its not-insignificant impact to South Carolina utility customers due to the ensuing write-offs, dissemination of proper perspective and the making of an informed decision on the fate of Southern Nuclear’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is even more urgent.

 

When I arrived at Southern Nuclear’s Vogtle nuclear units in 1988 to help train its operators, the press and public were inflamed about the two units’ construction costs.

The first Vogtle unit was already operating and the second unit would come online in 1989. Total cost: $9 billion – roughly $20 billion in today’s money. Just over a dozen years later, in 2001, Southern Company’s total market cap was not even $18 billion. Barely twice their original Vogtle investment. Vogtle Units 1 and 2 were, in today’s parlance, a “bet the company” investment. The fact is that the expenditure that Southern was excoriated for at the time has, in hindsight, become a very valuable investment to it.

The first two Vogtle units are cash cows, providing massive amounts of safe, clean, carbon-free electricity.

If you adjust those dollar expenditures to account for the fact that the construction of the first Vogtle unit started in 1976, it becomes even more apparent that they were a very good investment and should continue to be so, likely outliving me as a productive asset.

So most recently, we have had an outside number of $24 billion quoted for the now-cancelled V. C. Summer reactors which, while being a large number, if extrapolated out, and considering the environmental effects of the generation that will be necessary to replace the electricity they would have produced, would be money well spent 40, 60, or 80 years from now.

By the way, 40 years is just the initial license term for a new nuclear unit.

The two original Vogtle units have already had their licenses to operate extended to the 2040s. Other operating nuclear units are preparing for 80-year license extensions as I write this, making the operational life of a nuclear power plant equivalent to the average human.

Quite a payback on an admittedly steep upfront investment.

 

It is a shame that we have become so shortsighted and risk averse, that the reality of the nuclear industry’s current performance and the history of projects like Vogtle 1 and 2 is dismissed as irrelevant. Meanwhile, our largest economic and political rival builds dozens of new reactors. Shame on us.

Solar and wind as a primary source of baseload generation for a modern industrial society is a chimera, an illusion that will be dissipated in the future as degraded, damaged and failed solar panels poison landfills, as tens of millions of birds die from windmills, as local micro-climate effects from massive wind-farms become evident, and sadly, as more carbon-emitting generation has to be inefficiently operated to compensate for the vagaries of clouds and changing winds.

Not widely known is that, besides being a fuel, natural gas is a very valuable chemical feedstock.

Rising prices for natural gas 15 or so years ago had significantly crippled the U.S. chemical production industry, and was causing shutdowns of chemical production facilities and exporting of American jobs.

 

Hydraulic fracturing and the subsequent sharp decrease in natural gas prices has reinvigorated the chemical industry in this country. Extreme increases in the use of natural gas for the generation of electricity, although less carbon intensive than coal, competes with other productive uses for the gas.

I am not by any means a climate change alarmist, but if carbon is an issue, and regardless of the availability of alternative energy sources, nuclear energy provides a safe, reliable (remember winter a few years ago) and non-carbon emitting electricity source, 24/7, 365.

We are foolish to not more seriously pursue the 60-plus-year lifetime return on the capital investment in new nuclear generating facilities.

Vogtle Units 3 and 4 should be managed to completion, ensuring their availability to serve the public interest for generations to come.

If you disagree with the above, save your breath. They say the mind only functions when it’s open like a parachute. Until nuclear fusion is proven as a sustainable technology, mine is closed on this one.

 

The writer, who lives in Gwynn, Va., is a retired licensed nuclear reactor operator, instructor and nuclear industry manager. He is an Augusta native.

 

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