Group fears plant's river impact

Nuclear regulators did not consider drought, climate change and the growing demands on the Savannah River when they signed off on a draft Environmental Impact Statement supporting the eventual expansion of Plant Vogtle, according to an Atlanta environmental group.

"Expanding nuclear Plant Vogtle will affect not just this local community in Burke County, but Georgia as a whole and our region overall," wrote Sara Barczak of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in a Nov. 28 letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The problem, she says, is that the river might not be able to accommodate the increase in water volume required by additional reactors, especially in light of recent drought and evidence that climate change will further stress water resources across the Southeast.

"The NRC does not acknowledge that the Savannah River appears to already be over-allocated today, let alone several decades in the future," the organization wrote. "This needs to be studied before the final EIS is issued."

Southern Nuclear Operating Company applied on Aug. 15, 2006, for an early site permit which -- if approved -- would give the company up to 20 years to decide whether to build one or more additional reactors at the plant, and to apply to the NRC for permits to initiate construction.

The NRC concluded last summer that environmental impacts would not keep the agency from issuing the early site permit. The public comment period for the draft was to end last Wednesday but was extended by 30 days.

According to Ms. Barczak, Vogtle's two existing reactors withdraw a monthly average of 69 million gallons per day of river water, and consume -- through its loss as steam -- about 43 million gallons per day, meaning that only about one-third of the withdrawals are returned to the river.

The proposed two reactors, she said, would use about 53.6 million gallons per day during normal use and up to 83.2 million gallons per day at maximum use, with 50 to 75 percent of that volume potentially lost as steam, she wrote.

"Nowhere in this document does it appear that the NRC has evaluated how the Savannah River is going to be able to handle the Georgia and South Carolina that we will live in decades from now, that by the NRC's own statements appears to be a future in which the Savannah River is going to see extreme increases in demand," the group wrote.

Although the water consumption figures appear large, they represent a fraction of the river's flow, said Southern Nuclear spokeswoman Beth Thomas.

"Our units use about 1 percent of the average annual water flow," she said. "If we built two additional units, for a total of four units, those four units would use about 2 percent of the average annual flow, so in reality it is a very small amount of what's in the river, and the NRC has said the environmental impact associated with additional units would be small."

Plant Vogtle is in Burke County, about 26 miles south of Augusta.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.