Originally created 05/17/99

Plant emerges from shadowy past

Plant Alvin W. Vogtle isn't attracting the attention it did a decade ago.

That's the way officials at the area's other nuclear plant like it.

Vogtle, which faced numerous setbacks during its construction and operation in the 1980s, has maintained stellar performance records in recent years. In 1997, the plant earned a superior rating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees the commercial nuclear industry.

At the time, Vogtle, located along the Savannah River in Burke County, was one of only five plants nationwide to hold the rating. A more recent review of Vogtle operations, issued in March by the commission, deemed its operations acceptable.

"The lack of news or attention comes from our employees doing the job right day in and day out," Plant Manager Jeff Gasser said.

The perception of Vogtle was much different during the late 1980s, when its price tag jumped from 1971 estimates of $660 million to an actual $8.87 billion.

Georgia Power Co. officials said the cost increases were caused by federal regulations implemented after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. A study commissioned by Georgia's Public Service Commission blamed the increases on mismanagement and low worker productivity.

After a long squabble, the commission approved a 6 percent increase in Georgia Power's rates for 1988 and 1989 to help the utility pay for the plant. The increase was less than Georgia Power had requested.

More recently, the plant's performance reviews have not eased concerns of some nuclear-watchdog groups. Some activists remain concerned about the site's highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which must be stored at Vogtle until the U.S. Department of Energy fulfills a promise to open a national burial site for such waste.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Rita Kilpatrick of Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia. "One of our main concerns has been that there has been continued generation of nuclear waste in the midst of work being done to arrive at a solution for it.

"We feel that it is irresponsible for the government and the industry to continue to generate nuclear waste when a solution has not been determined."

Vogtle has enough space in its spent-fuel pools -- which immerse the rods under 40 feet of water to shield the environment from radiation -- to last until about 2015, Mr. Gasser said. The federal government's beleaguered federal repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is scheduled to open in 2010.

"There are no plans right now to build additional spent fuel pools at Vogtle," he said. "We believe the federal government will fulfill its spent-fuel obligations before our pools are filled."

Unlike neighboring Savannah River Site, a sprawling federal reservation charged with producing and refining radioactive materials for nuclear weapons, Vogtle is a commercial, private facility with one mission -- to produce electricity for Georgia Power customers throughout the state.

Georgia Power is Vogtle's largest owner, with a 45.7 percent stake in the plant. Oglethorpe Power Corp. owns 30 percent of the plant; the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia owns 22.7 percent; and Dalton's city government owns 1.6 percent.

Vogtle's first unit began operating in May 1987; the second unit began operating two years later. The plant employs about 900 people.

Georgia Power operated the plant until 1997, when the operating license was transferred to Southern Nuclear Operating Co.

Southern Nuclear, like Georgia Power a subsidiary of utility giant Southern Co., is charged with operating the conglomerate's three Southeastern nuclear plants, Mr. Gasser said. Besides Vogtle, the company operates Plant Hatch near Baxley, Ga., and Plant Farley in Alabama.

"Having one company dedicated to nuclear operations allows us to develop the experience and technical knowledge in our employees to focus upon the nuclear plants," Mr. Gasser said.

"Instead of having all the support organization under two companies, we have one company. It allows us to share experience and information within the company easier than you could under two separate companies."

Vogtle's reactors generate power by splitting uranium atoms to create and sustain nuclear reactions, said Ellie Daniel, director of Vogtle's visitors center. The reactions generate heat, which in turn heats water to create steam.

The steam, under intense heat and pressure, turns turbines to produce electricity, Mr. Daniel said.

Each of Vogtle's twin reactors can generate 1,215 megawatts of power, he said. Combined, the reactors generate enough electricity to power metropolitan Atlanta, Mr. Daniel said.

Brandon Haddock covers energy issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.


Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.    | Contact Us