Senate Bill 31 granted Georgia Power the authority to charge customers early for the interest on a $14 billion nuclear plant at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, the existing site of a 2-unit nuclear plant.
The bill would increase the average utility customer’s electric bill by roughly $1.30 a month starting in 2011 and gradually increasing to an average of $12 a month for homes using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month in 2018.
The plant itself won’t go online until 2017, though once it does, customers will actually begin to see a decrease in their bills because nuclear power is ultimately cheaper to produce, said company spokesman Jeff Wilson.
“It’s more expensive to build but it’s a lot cheaper to operate,” Wilson said. “And over the long term, nuclear plants are much cheaper for the customer.”
How much cheaper? The company estimates that within several years of operation, power bills across the state will drop by $30. The reason the impact is so widespread is because all electricity garnered from all Georgia Power plants goes into the same grid, and from there, is channeled across the state.
The addition of the Augusta reactors will not only make electricity cheaper, Wilson said, but it will also make it a possibility for everyone, as the state’s population continues to swell and demand continues to soar.
Of course, much of this is contingent upon the bill’s success in the House, where it is now in subcommittee hearings.
Should it reach the House floor, local legislators have expressed support for the addition of nuclear plants in the state, though are less sure about how such plants should be funded.
Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, said he’s in favor of exploring all energy sources that will help the state break free of its addiction to foreign oil and domestically-produced coal, as both pollute the state’s air and water ways.
To that end, nuclear power could begin to clean up the atmosphere because nuclear plants produce no green house gases. Whether the new reactors should be funded by residents well in advance of their completion date is another matter, he said.
“I am listening from my constituents on that issue closely, and the vast majority I have heard from says no to the rate increase,” Bearden said.
Others were less hesitant to approve the measure.
“I believe nuclear must be a part of the energy planning for our future, and it is essential that we start immediately to get the new production on line ASAP,” said Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange. “Georgia Power has been one of the best at constructing and managing nuclear facilities and I fully support this project.”
The addition of the plant will provide major benefits for the state as a whole but will also pose some serious obstacles, said Curtis Hollabaugh, chairman of the department of geosciences at the University of West Georgia.
It’s true nuclear power produces no harmful green house gases, which contribute to global warming, and it’s true nuclear plants can produce significantly more energy than coal-burning plants, he said. At the same time, there’s always the risk of human error leading to the unthinkable tragedy of a meltdown as occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and, to a greater extent, at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
“Safety is dependant upon human action. Chernobyl was mostly human error,” Hollabaugh said. “Nuclear power plants are very well engineered and well constructed but they’re run by humans.”
On top of that, there’s no sound way to dispose of nuclear waste that is no longer of use. It can be buried but that requires a large tract of land that is far from water supplies.
Also, nuclear plants require a great deal of water to be used as a coolant, a fact that could pose a problem in a drought-ridden area like Georgia.
In spite of the drawbacks, Hollabaugh said, nuclear power is the wave of the future, as it simply is more environmentally friendly.
“I do think we’ll see more nuclear power plants in the future,” he said. “I would be surprised if we didn’t.”