Will South Carolina be the Center of the Nuclear Revival?

In the gymnasium of an elementary school in Blair, South Carolina, staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gathered to listen to public comment on the potential environmental impact of two new nuclear reactors proposed for construction V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in nearby Jenkinsville.

“You have insight and knowledge that we don’t,” NRC Project Manager William Burton told the crowd of around 100 people. “We want you to participate in this decision. An educated consumer is our best customer.”

After a short presentation by NRC staff, Jenkinsville Mayor Gregory Ginyard was not impressed. “I live a mile and a half from the plant,” he stated. “I’m the mayor. They want me to represent them. And I don’t know what you want. Where I live we don’t have environmentalists. You guys need to educate us. The people of Jenkinsville, we are on the front lines.”

Ginyard, 52, grew up in Jenkinsville and has lived in this small, predominately African-American town all of his life, half of which he has spent in the shadow of V.C. Summer’s nuclear reactor, which was built in the late 1970s and came on line in 1982. At that time, South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) confiscated 60 acres from his father’s property for the plant, compensating the family $1,000 per an acre. Now as the first mayor of the newly incorporated town of Jenkinsville, he is caught in the middle of a battle between two utility companies and South Carolina’s small but energetic community of anti-nuclear activists, in a battle of national importance. If the plans of the privately operated SCE&G and unregulated state utility Santee-Cooper go forward, V.C. Summer Reactors 2 and 3 will likely be the first new commercial reactors in the United States to begin construction in almost 30 years.

Ginyard is not the only Jenkinsville politician concerned about the proposed expansion. Kamau Marcharia is a community activist on the Fairfield County Council. He is wary about how two new reactors will affect his community. “It’s a ten billion dollar contract,” explains Marcharia. “Out of 10 billion dollars I want to know how many minority contracts they’re going to give. I want to know how people are going to help this community with its infrastructure. Right now we have no health center and no modern fire station. I want to know how they’re going to help us with this. I want to know how they are going to improve the roads when four to six thousand people work here on construction for seven years. I want to know how they are going to make this community safer.”

These are reasonable concerns for this poor, aging community. The town’s average annual household income is only $24,000 and the average resident of Jenkinsville is almost forty years old. The first reactor at V.C. Summer has failed to produce prosperity for the town. “Thirty years ago when the plant came, Jenkinsville was pretty rural and people were pretty much uninformed. It was just like today, but we had more in this community back then. There were three stores and other things that were closed down and boarded up. Jenkinsville is worse off today than when the plant moved in.”

Marcharia doesn’t blame the plant for the town’s decline: most small rural towns in South Carolina were better off thirty years ago. Still, he thinks that SCE&G should do more to support the community in which their plant is based. 90% of the jobs at the nuclear power plant go to people outside of Fairfield County. He agrees with Mayor Guinyard that SCE&G has made little effort to inform the community about issues related to the plant, a sentiment echoed by several residents speaking before the NRC. “I worry about evacuations,” says Marcharia. “The town of Dawkins has one way in and one way out – what’s the evacuation plan in case of an accident? There are signs here from 15, 20 years ago about evacuation that don’t even show you in what direction you should go.”

Many Jenkinsville residents are anxious about cancer. Worldwide, there is intense debate over the relationship between nuclear power and cancer rates. Although it is impossible to pin any one cancer case to a nuclear reactor, there is growing evidence that certain cancers such as breast cancer, leukemia and thyroid cancer increase among people who have lived for years near a reactor. Many in Jenkinsville, including Marcharia, feel that cancer rates have increased in the area.

Other residents worry about the plant’s effect on animals and vegetation. Local farmer Barbara Mann, who lives two miles from the plant, tells of strange occurrences happening on her property. “I’ve been finding many dead birds,” Mann says. “Old trees will start dying for no reason. Our rye fields that we have for horses aren’t growing. We planted fifteen collards and only got one pot, when usually we can get several. We’ve spotted deer with growths hanging from the side of its face. In our pond our bass won’t grow. We came here twenty years ago and back then SCE&G used to come to check our vegetables, but they haven’t been for a year or two. If they build two more of those reactors, it’s going to cause us to have to leave.”

Marcharia doubts that there is enough money or organization to stop the construction of the two plants, but opponents are not letting the reactors go through without a fight. The South Carolina Sierra Club has filed with the NRC to request that they deny approval of the plant on grounds of negative environmental impact. In addition, Friends of the Earth and other citizen interveners spent half of December in a hearing before South Carolina’s Public Service Commission (PSC) arguing against SCE&G’s application for permission to build and for the right to raise their rates.

SCE&G wants to raise rates 37% above ordinary increases over the next ten years in order to obtain capital to pay for the project. SCE&G and Santee-Cooper have already contracted with the Westinghouse and Shaw corporations to build the two AP1000
reactors at an estimated cost of $9.8 billion.

Friends of the Earth argues that it isn’t right to shift the risks of a private company from their shareholders to the South Carolina ratepayer. Although they are relatively cheap to operate, nuclear plants are costly to build. They are also a risky venture, as Sierra Club member Susan Corbett pointed out at the NRC hearing, when she presented a document five pages long listing nuclear reactor sites in America where construction began but was never completed. If construction begins and is stopped before completion, the South Carolina utility ratepayers will lose money from increased rates and will gain nothing.

Assuming the reactors are completed, the final price tag remains a matter of dispute. Friends of the Earth claims that the $9.8 billion estimate greatly underestimates construction costs. It cites a Department of Energy figure from October 2, 2008 that estimates the costs of two new nuclear reactors to be $18 billion. Whatever the true cost, SCE&G is hoping to get access to federal government loan guarantees authorized to support the nuclear industry’s attempted revival. $18.5 billion was authorized in 2007 and a possible $50 billion more will come out of the pending economic stimulus package. The company testified during the PSC hearing that the Department of Energy rated it number two on the list of utilities qualifying for the underwriting against default. Without federal loan guarantees, it may be difficult for SCE&G to obtain financing for its project on reasonable terms

Another point of contention is whether energy conservation, increased energy efficiencies, wind power and solar power are minor issues or the wave of the future. SCE&G and Santee-Cooper project around 260,000 new customers in the next ten years, which necessitates more power plants. They claim that they have exhaustively looked into all the alternatives for meeting South Carolina’s future energy needs, and have determined that this project is the safest, most cost effective, least environmentally damaging way to meet both residential and industrial needs.

Opponents see SCE&G’s search for alternatives as anything but exhaustive. In testimony before the PSC, the company admitted that it had never completed a thorough analysis of possible gains from increased energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

For Larry Newton, a certified “Green Realtor”, SCE&G’s plan to build multiple generators in America’s 3rd most energy wasteful state is a mater of misplaced priorities. “South Carolina is one of the few states looking at energy production,” says Newton. “Most states are looking at how they can reduce use, so you can do more for less.”
Newton sees increasing efficiency and conserving more energy, a process known as Demand Side Management (DSM), as a cheaper, faster and safer alternative to building new plants. Because so much of South Carolina’s energy use goes into heating and cooling homes, using modern techniques to insulate homes could yield impressive results quickly. “It is widely recognized that a $.03/kwhr investment in energy efficiency is far quicker and more cost effective than adding expensive capacity,” says Newton. “New York is spending $2.3 billion on a statewide energy efficiency program to reduce electrical demand by 15% by 2015. The expected payback expected is $4.1 billion by 2015. Imagine what South Carolina could accomplish with $10 billion.”

SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity claims that the company does not oppose Demand Side Management or renewable energy. The SCE&G recently hired a DSM program manager and has programs to promote conservation as well as a program called Palmetto Clean Energy where people can donate money to the development of alternative fuel sources. He states that there needs to be a mix of approaches, which includes DSM as well as new nuclear reactors.

For Tom Clement, Friends of the Earth’s Southeast Region Nuclear Coordinator, this argument fails to account for the reality of scarce resources. “Investing billions into nuclear power will essentially eliminate any pursuit of efficiency, conservation and renewable energy by the company in South Carolina,” says Clement. “Proponents talk about a mix, but money isn’t unlimited. In South Carolina right now it is cheaper and safer to save energy than to produce energy. Unfortunately SCE&G is in the business of generating and selling power, not saving power.”

Newton agrees, adding that SCE&G’s conservation and efficiency programs are good community service projects but not a serious investment in large scale change. He does not blame the company for their present strategy, citing a lack of economic incentives for it to change course. “It takes three to tango in this case,” says Newton. “It takes the utility, your Public Service Commission and your state government to create effective regulatory changes that would make it more desirable for a utility company to become not only a source of power but also a distributor of power which can make a profit from increasing energy efficiency at the residential and commercial level.”
Another issue brought up by opponents is the large amount of water that the nuclear reactors will consume. This is the primary concern of Joseph Wojciki, a retired math professor who intervened in the PSC case. Wojciki, who refers to himself as “Joe the Intervener”, believes if there are to be new nuclear reactors, they should be built near the ocean where they will have access to abundant water. SCE&G defends the location of its project by pointing out that the V.C. Summer Nuclear station is located on the Monticello Reservoir, which is 17 square miles with an average depth of almost 60 feet. The Reservoir is connected to the Broad River through the Parr Reservoir. In 26 years, the present reactor at V.C. Summer has never faced a water shortage.

Still, even this large body of water might not be sufficient if South Carolina’s drought continues and Duke Power goes through with its proposal to build one new coal-fired and two new nuclear plants upriver on the Broad River, in addition to three reactors in Jenkinsville. According to Clement, the Broad River is the river most threatened nationwide by new coal and nuclear power plants. In total, the five plants would evaporate around 80 million gallons a day. A depletion of the Broad River would affect the water supply for Columbia, South Carolina’s capital located 25 miles from Jenkinsville.

Another major problem is the high level nuclear waste the plant will produce. SCE&G and Santee Cooper officials express confidence that Yucca Mountain in Nevada will soon open as America’s high level nuclear waste depository, but both political and technical issues continue to plague the proposed project. Presently there is nowhere to take the waste and it must be safely stored and guarded with on site. If released from storage, high level waste poses severe health risks to the public, and if a terrorist got hold of the waste he could create a dirty bomb. A sophisticated terrorist could further process the material to create a nuclear weapon. While VC Summer has safely contained its high level waste for 26 years, the prospect of storing and protecting three times as much waste for the next 300,000 years is a heavy burden for the facility to take on.

V.C. Summer’s safety record has generally been good, but not perfect. There have been several leaks throughout its history, the most serious occurring in 2000. In that year the reactor suffered from a leaking hot leg pipe, which cools the reactor. According the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Luck, not skill, seemed to prevent the hot leg piping from cracking completely.” While a core reactor meltdown is unlikely, if it did happen it could have a catastrophic effect on the people of central South Carolina.

Even with the support of increased utility rates and federal loan guarantees, SCE&G may run into a difficult issue facing nuclear plants nationwide: a lack of trained staff. Forty percent of those presently working in nuclear power plants are eligible to retire in the next five years, and only 8% are under the age of 32. Santee Cooper spokesperson Mollie Gore says the utility companies are cognizant of this shortage, and that is why they are working with technical colleges in both Charleston and Columbia to offer degrees in order to make sure that there are enough South Carolinians trained to work at these plants by 2016. It remains to be seen how successful these programs will be and how many people will enroll.

Will the reactors be built? It’s a definite possibility. South Carolina is the perfect state for the nuclear industry to begin its hoped for revival. The nuclear power industry is very powerful in South Carolina. South Carolina already generates around half of its energy needs with nuclear reactors. All six of South Carolina’s House members and both Senators support the construction of more nuclear reactors in the state. So far, not a single elected official in the South Carolina state government has spoken out against reactor constructions, nor is there widespread opposition to nuclear power among South Carolinians. The PSC most likely will approve the project and allow SCE&G to go forward with a rate increase, and the NRC’s environmental review will likely have little effect on the process.

For SCE&G, a more serious regulatory hurdle is the NRC’s design approval for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, the type that SCE&G wants to build at V.C. Summer. This type of plant has never been built before, and after the 17th iteration of design modification it still has yet to be approved.

An even more daunting task for SCE&G is to obtain the funds it needs to begin this massive project in the midst of an economic meltdown. South Carolina unemployment now approaches 10% and is rising every day. It might not be the best time to raise utility rates, an action which could drive users to seek other methods to obtain electricity or get off the grid altogether, thus driving up rates for remaining customers. Higher utility rates will likely slow economic growth and lead to public resentment. Even with the United States government subsidizing uranium enrichment, liability insurance and financing, the project may be too costly. So far, no financial backers have stepped forward. Whether or not Jenkinsville is the site of a new nuclear power revival in America or the last gasp of a dying industry remains to be seen.

MICHAEL J. BERG lives in South Carolina. He can be reached at: mistermichaelberg@yahoo.com