WAYNESBORO - With workers behind him already assembling the towering steel capsule that will contain one of the nation's first new commercial nuclear reactors in a generation, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday the Plant Vogtle expansion in Georgia will influence other American utilities weighing new investments in nuclear power.
The Obama administration's top energy official toured the construction site and spoke to workers a week after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for the Southern Co. to add a third and fourth reactor at the nuclear plant about 30 miles south of Augusta.
The $14 billion project is slated for completion in 2017. With delays and cost overruns having plagued the last generation of nuclear plants, Chu said avoiding both could boost confidence among other power companies and investors and spur even more nuclear growth nationwide.
"If this project goes forward and is built on-budget, on-time and on-schedule, that would be a very good thing," Chu told reporters. "A lot of other companies will say, 'OK. We now know we can do this and it would be a good investment.'"
Still, it could take time for the industry to expand. More than two dozen nuclear reactors have been proposed in recent years, but experts now say it is likely that only five or six new reactors will be completed by the end of the decade. The NRC last approved construction of a nuclear plant in 1978.
Critics including NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who voted against the Vogtle license, have cited last year's nuclear disaster in Japan as a reason to slow down until new safety standards can be adopted. Others note that the U.S. has yet to find an alternative site for dumping radioactive waste after work was halted at the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada in 2009.
Southern Co. officials say new safeguards built into the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors being added at Vogtle already offer vast improvements over previous generations of nuclear plants. And Chu said he's "very confident" a new site to store spent nuclear fuel will be found.
"I don't think you should say you have to cross all the T's and dot all the I's before you begin this," said Chu, who has appointed an internal working group to study the findings of a presidential commission that issued its report on the nuclear waste issue last month. "I still assert it is a solvable problem."
Even before it had a license to build a new reactor, the Southern Co. and its partners spent the past two years and about $4 billion preparing sites for the new units at Plant Vogtle. Welders could be seen on the site Wednesday assembling the steel dome that will sit at the bottom of the 215-feet-high, 130-feet-diameter containment capsule that will house one of the reactors.
About 1,700 workers are already on the job site and plant managers say that number will grow to nearly 5,000 at the peak of construction. Once the completed units go online, they will employ about 800 permanent workers.
That's all been welcome news for surrounding Burke County, where Plant Vogtle is the largest employer and helped cushion residents from the deeper effects of the recession felt by rural neighboring counties that relied more on manufacturing jobs.
"Plant Vogtle has pretty well saved Burke County," said Allen DeLaigle, who owns and manages an RV park with his twin brother about 4 miles from the nuclear plant.
Since site preparation ramped up for the new units, DeLaigle's park has filled about 90 of its 151 spaces with RVs and campers owned by workers coming in from other states such as Alabama and Mississippi, West Virginia and Ohio.
The influx has helped boost James Howard Jones' business at Avery's Country Store, which has been catering pulled-pork lunches and eggs-and-biscuits breakfasts for workers at the construction site. Ultimately Jones hopes to score a contract to operate a new cafeteria at Plant Vogtle once the reactors are finished.
Robin Baxley, owner of a Waynesboro office supply store, added two new employees to keep up with deliveries of pens, paper, marker boards and thumb drives to the modular offices set up on the construction site. Her business also supplied the cubicles, desks and file cabinets for many of those temporary offices
"They helped us make it through the economic downturn," Baxley said. "Office furniture is not the first thing people buy when they can hardly make payroll."
Meanwhile, Augusta Technical College and its satellite campus in Waynesboro have launched a 2-year associate's degree program for training nuclear plant operators in order to help local residents compete for the new units' permanent positions.
Apparently not everybody is praising the Plant Vogtle expansion. A group called the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League said Wednesday it's working with local residents to petition the NRC to expand the radius of emergency planning zones around the nuclear plant and improve safeguards in the event of a disaster.
Baxley and others say they're not too concerned, considering Plant Vogtle has been operating without incident since the 1980s. And it's hard to ignore all the new faces - and their paychecks - during dinner out at local restaurants or trips to the grocery store.
"We're in a small town so you kind of know everybody, and there are a lot of people floating around right now that you don't know," Baxley said. "When you see those people you can automatically say, 'Oh, are you here for Vogtle?'"