Georgia Reactor Project Seems Set for Big Federal Loan Guarantee

From the ferocity of the opposition to the Vogtle nuclear power plant project in Georgia, the first U.S. reactor project to get a construction permit in decade, you might think that the future of U.S. nuclear energy depends on it. In fact, the project seems set to get a Federal loan guarantee amounting to more than $8 billion, but even if it goes forward on that basis--which is by no means assured--this does not mean that the gates will be opened to a flood of other new nuclear power plant projects.

M.V. Ramana, a specialist on nuclear energy at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, wonders whether nuclear power "will ever make it in states with deregulated [electricity] markets." That is, there seem to be hints of a nuclear renaissance only in states that have old-fashioned vertically integrated utilities like Georgia's Southern Company, which have a guaranteed base of customers and can persuade regulators to charge consumers up-front for very high construction costs.

South Carolina Electric and Gas is awaiting and probably soon will obtain a combined construction and operating license for two new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors at its Summer site. But it probably is the only other new project close to a go-ahead. Everywhere, high construction costs, long construction times, and competition from dirt-cheap natural gas make nuclear projects a hard sell. And wherever a specific plant is proposed local considerations also come into play.

Plans to build a GE-type advanced boiling water reactor near San Antonio, though close to getting regulatory approval in principle, took a big hit from Fukushima because of high Japanese involvement in the project. (Toshiba is now its main funder.) In Iowa, citizens are taking umbrage at the notion their average electricity bill might rise by $8 per month for 12 years, to finance a nuclear plant MidAmerican Energy proposes to build at the Duane Arnold site in Linn Country--and that estimate seems to be based on a rather optimistic guess about what the plant will cost. A proposed nuclear plant in Utah would require taking 64 billion liters of water annually from the Green River, even though the facility would use a relatively sophisticated once-through cooling system.

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