Ga. Power eyes rural site for possible nuke plant

Georgia Power has chosen a site south of Columbus where it may build a new nuclear plant sometime after 2030, according to documents filed with state regulators.

The company said it has not decided yet to build more nuclear plants in Georgia, but confirmed it has begun preliminary studies on 7,000 acres that it owns next to the Chattahoochee River in northern Stewart County.

The rural county is just below Fort Benning and about 15 miles from downtown Columbus.

Such a project could face stiff challenges, given multi-state bickering over the Chattahoochee’s water, Georgia Power’s difficulties with expanding its Vogtle nuclear plant, and potential opposition from nearby communities.

“I just don’t believe it will ever get built,” said Randy Butts, city manager in Lumpkin, the county seat. “I may be wrong, but I don’t think the folks in Columbus will allow it. Columbus is on a roll. They’re doing everything right to improve their community. They ain’t going to settle for no nuclear plant.”

Georgia Power is years behind original schedule and billions over budget on building two reactors at its existing Plant Vogtle near Augusta, though the company maintains the project is going well now.

The company had previously said it might consider another nuclear plant after the Vogtle project is done, but until now had not said where it might be located.

The site disclosure, in filings to the Public Service Commission, was first reported by Energy Wire, an industry publication.

Georgia Power told the PSC it expects to do preliminary studies on the site during the next five years “to ensure that the option (to build a new nuclear power plant) is available when it is selected.”

The utility said it would take about seven years to obtain a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and about a decade after that to build a plant.

Jacob Hawkins, a spokesman for Georgia Power, said it would be at least 20 years from now before a plant is completed, if the company decides to go ahead.

“We haven’t made that decision yet, but when the time comes, we’ve done our preparation, we’ve done our homework,” said Hawkins.

Economic windfall

Such a huge construction project could be an economic windfall for the Columbus area.

“We don’t have much of an employment base here, so a nuclear power plant wouldn’t be that big of a help,” said Butts, the Lumpkin city manager. But, he added, “most of our children leave after school. This might cause some to come back.”

With just 6,000 residents, Stewart County is one of Georgia’s smallest. It’s also among the poorest, with one-quarter of its households below the poverty line.

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Georgia Power told her several weeks ago it was considering a “clean energy” facility at the site, but didn’t specify whether it would be a nuclear or natural gas -fired plant or some other option.

“We’re always looking for jobs,” said Tomlinson, but “we’re not going to follow a shiny object of jobs alone without looking at the whole payoff.”

She said Georgia Power has to “give many years notice,” adding, “I’m sure that we’ll have more community input than you can imagine.”

Skeptics raised questions Friday about whether a new nuclear plant is needed or viable at that location.

‘Not a good idea’

“Clean energy is the best path forward for the economy, the ratepayer and the environment of Georgia,” said Mark Woodall, vice chairman of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Hideously expensive nuclear plants are not a good idea for Stewart County or anywhere else.”

He questioned putting a nuclear power plant on the relatively shallow Chattahoochee River, especially with a nuclear plant already operating 75 miles below Stewart County, on the Alabama side of the river.

Nuclear plants require a minimum water flow to run at full power. During a drought in 2007 Alabama Power took one of the reactors at its plant off line for refueling.

“They already have a pretty clear historical picture of what low flow looks like for energy generation on the lower Chattahoochee River and it doesn’t look good,” said Chris Manganiello, policy director for the nonprofit Georgia River Network. “You can’t draw water that isn’t there.”

He said more nukes on the Chattahoochee would complicate negotiations in the 25-year-old water war between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over an equitable distribution of the Chattahoochee River.

Because of the water issues, “it just doesn’t make any sense for that site,” said Bobby Baker, a former PSC commissioner and lawyer who recently represented the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Baker said Georgia Power is more likely to build a natural gas-fired plant at the site, which is near a major natural gas pipeline. Southern Co. recently struck a deal to buy gas utility AGL Resources.

“If you just bought a gas company, my guess is any new capacity you build is going to be gas,” he said.

Newer technology

However, Georgia Power’s Hawkins said some newer-technology nuclear designs are partly air-cooled, requiring less water than existing plants.

In its latest 20-year-plan filed earlier this year, Georgia Power said it didn’t need any new capacity for several years, beyond what is already in the works. If the PSC approves Georgia Power’s long-term plan, the utility plans to shut down a number of coal- or oil-fired units and replace capacity with new renewable power sources such as contracts with wind and solar power producers.

The new Vogtle units are also expected to come online in 2019 and 2020.

Georgia Power and parent Southern Co. have shifted much of the utility’s power generation to natural gas-fired plants as that fuel has become cheaper and clean air regulations have raised the cost of operating coal-fired plants.

Hawkins said Georgia Power remains committed to keeping nuclear power part of the mix as well.

“Vogtle’s progressing well. We’ve certainly had challenges,” said Hawkins. But “we continue to believe nuclear’s got to be part of a diversified energy generation mix,” he said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.