NuclearEnergy_11-11-2021

As a native Augustan, I have always been much more fond of the nearby hydroelectric Clarks Hill Dam than the equally nearby nuclear power plant, Plant Vogtle. The tragedies of similar plants such as those in Fukushima and Chernobyl scar my mind, resulting in an almost automatic repugnant disfavor of this clean-ish energy.

While these disasters are extremely rare and safety procedures have evolved to protect against them, nearly half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of nuclear energy, according to Morning Consult. Should we simply cast off these doubts as visceral, knee-jerk responses to deadly accidents? Or should we take a deeper look into the fears about nuclear energy and reconsider our path on its dependence?

First, it is worth looking at the status of current nuclear energy projects. On Oct. 22, Georgia Power announced even more delays on Plant Vogtle’s expansion of two new reactors. These reactors, which were due to be in operation by 2016 and 2017, have faced four delays in just the past six months. These delays have racked up the total project cost to $11.1 billion, significantly higher than the projected cost of $6.1 billion.

This may just seem like a financial issue for the state’s largest energy firm, but customers might have to cover some of the burdens. The Georgia Public Service Commission agreed to an addition of $2.1 billion into Georgia Power’s rate base, possibly affecting typical customers with an increase of $3.78 a month in bills after the first reactor is finished.

Plant Vogtle is expected to produce 17 million megawatt-hours of energy, which is enough to power 1.6 million average households. This seems to make the case that the plant is worth the investment. But even with these tremendous increases in the power grid, the cost of nuclear power often outweighs the production amount. Across the country, 34 of the total 61 power plants are losing money, totaling $2.9 billion in losses a year.

However, this is not stunting the expansion of Plant Vogtle. In fact, Georgia Power has profited off of the delayed construction of the plant. Customers have already footed a $2.3 billion bill for the new units, half of which has been straight profit for the company. By being late and over budget, Georgia Power stands to make $5 billion in extra profit.

Furthermore, nuclear energy presents waste management issues. While nuclear energy does not emit a handful of common pollutants, including carbon dioxide, extraction of raw uranium gives rise to an abundance of other problems. Required for nuclear power plants, uranium needs energy-intensive mining and milling. Twenty-eight tons of uranium — which will keep an average reactor going for about a year — requires the extraction of half a million tons of waste rock and over 100,000 tons of toxic mill tailings.

Additionally, the plant generates 159 tons of solid radioactive waste and 47,000 cubic feet of liquid waste. Around 30 tons of such waste generated is known as high-level waste and has no way of being safely disposed of. Instead, the waste is stored near the plant facility, emitting dangerous radiation and awaiting the development of a permanent disposal method.

Nuclear energy is not the future for a sustainable Georgia. The source is too costly, too time-consuming and not nearly as green as proponents wish you would think. While nuclear energy would reduce carbon emissions significantly, these other factors turn the tides against the energy source.

This does not mean that opponents to nuclear energy are wholly correct either. As expensive and inefficient as the building of new plants may be now, restructuring power grids to be completely renewable-based would be incredibly costly and take considerable amounts of time. And while it may have flaws, nuclear energy is still integral in the fight against climate change.

If nuclear energy was completely eliminated today, more than half of the United States’ carbon-free electricity would be wiped out as well. Unfortunately, this would lead to a fallback on fossil fuels, not renewable powers like wind and solar. This backstep would be even more dangerous than the risks posed by keeping current nuclear energy running.

Georgia should prioritize the expansion of renewable energies over the expansion of nuclear energy. However, transitioning away from nuclear energy may be counter-productive in the fight against climate change and for a carbon-free energy supply. Instead, the focus should be laid upon switching from fossil fuels to renewables while keeping nuclear energy at a bare minimum. The future for nuclear energy definitely should not be unwanted, over-budget and delayed expansions, but rather in the maintenance of our current plants while they are needed as we make investments in truly sustainable energy sources in the future.