WAYNESBORO, Georgia - Residents and environmental activists are in a bitter dispute with large U.S. energy corporations and the federal government over the safety of nuclear power, as more than a dozen corporations plan to, or have filed, paperwork to open new nuclear power plants, primarily in the U.S. South.
Energy giants like Southern Company, Entergy, and Florida Power and Light are attracted by billions in governmental incentives offered under the George W. Bush Administration.
"There's a whole suite of incentives being pumped out by the federal government to try and cajole the utilities back into the game," Glenn Carroll of Nuclear Watch South told IPS.
The U.S. Congress last month passed 38.5 billion dollars in loan guarantees to the nuclear industry. "If they can't pay back the loan, or don't want to pay back the loan, the government will guarantee the banks up to 80 percent," Carroll said.
Five sites have already applied for the first combined licensing applications in 32 years, Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told IPS. They are located in south Texas, Bellefonte in Alabama, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, North Anna in Virginia, and Lee Site in South Carolina.
Four companies have applied for Early Site Permits for sites in Grand Gulf, Mississippi; Clinton, Illinois; North Hanna, Virginia; and Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia.
"We've had indications of interest from 12 to 15 other companies," Hannah said.
The NRC held a public hearing in Waynesboro, Georgia, one of the closest affected cities to Plant Vogtle, on Oct. 4, 2007, to address the NRC's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The NRC must produce the EIS, as per the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.
The NRC insists the risks posed by nuclear power are small and within federal guidelines. However, activists argue the draft EIS ignores many issues and contend that nuclear power is unsafe.
At a time Georgia is in a historic drought, when residents are being told the state is running out of drinking water, the NRC and other agencies allow over a billion gallons of water per year from the Savannah River to be consumed by the existing Plant Vogtle Units 1 and 2.
"Vogtle will demand its water supply at the expense of everybody else," William Mareska of Augusta said at the hearing.
"There's only one water system. It's all the same water," Janet Marsh, executive director of Blue Ridge Environmental Defence League, told IPS in a phone interview.
IPS reviewed the draft EIS, about 600 pages, to learn more about how the government reached these controversial conclusions.
The proposed Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 would consume 1.76 cubic metres per second, on average, amounting to between 0.7 and 1.7 percent of the total river per year, the document says. This would be over 55 million cubic metres per year, according to IPS's calculations, confirmed by the NRC.
"This is more than all the residents of Atlanta, Savannah, and Augusta [Georgia's most populous cities] combined," Sara Barczak of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said in her remarks.
Although rain will replenish the river, the NRC estimates "the resulting decrease in river stage... would be... 5 cm. at Drought Level 3 conditions and... 2.5 cm. under average discharge conditions," each year.
In addition, the plants would also consume 623 gallons per minute on average, from two aquifers, according to the draft EIS.
One aquifer has already lost 4.6 metres of water since Vogtle Units 1 and 2 began operation in 1987. "Drawdown" as a result of Units 3 and 4 would be 2.1 metres after 30 years of normal operation, the draft EIS reports.
"These incremental drawdown levels are small in comparison to the 120 metres" in the aquifer, the Draft EIS concludes.
One local farmer, Doug Rhodes, told the NRC he lives "next door" to Vogtle Units 1 and 2. "There's half a dozen shallow wells. If we do have a problem with the wells, what will happen to them? Southern Company said they would handle the infrastructure. Why hasn't that been done?"
"In recent weeks we've had reports there are farmers who are concerned they've had to dig deeper wells for their irrigation. Homeowners have had to do additional well-drilling. People are blaming Vogtle. The idea of two new nuclear plants is of real concern," Marsh said.
The NRC has not interviewed Rhodes or other farmers, but has been told by local agencies that the water consumption would not pose a risk to wells, Hannah told IPS.
It is unclear how the drawdown of the river and aquifers would be a small impact, even per the NRC's own regulations. The legal definition of a small impact is when "environmental effects are not detectable or are so minor they would neither destabilise nor noticeably alter any important attribute of the resource." Is seven feet of drawdown in 30 years neither detectable nor noticeable?
However, the NRC argued it is not detectable. In order to be detectable, "a farmer living next to a plant... using well water to irrigate... would have to notice some change in the water resource. We don't mean a scientist using equipment couldn't notice some difference. The difference would not be detectable by a user of the resource," Hannah explained.
Plant Vogtle's new units, just like any other nuclear power reactor, will release what the NRC considers to be small amounts of radioactive pollution through liquid and gas effluents. In the draft EIS, the NRC states that the amounts of radioactivity projected are lower than the federally allowed "doses" to the public.
"Currently there are no data that unequivocally establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure of low doses below about 100 mSv [millisieverts] and at low doses," the draft EIS also states.
However, according to study by Joseph Mangano, MPH, "the cancer death rate for children and adolescents in the 11 counties closest to Vogtle rose 58.5 percent, compared to a 14.1 percent decline nationally," since Units 1 and 2 opened. The study is based on data from Southern Company and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
"During the same periods, the death rate in Burke County... rose sharply for all cancers, especially for Blacks and for children and young/middle age adults, while U.S. rates declined," the study continues.
The Draft EIS does not explain the increase in cancer rates, although it does note that current rate of cancer in Burke County, 221 per 100,000 people, is higher than the rate for Georgia statewide, 196. Major respiratory diseases are higher, 141 to 90. Major cardiovascular diseases are higher, 448 to 326.
Mangano told IPS that his study also shows that Burke County originally had lower cancer rates than statewide. "In a rural town with no industry, the cancer rate would be lower," he said. "To not take evidence of rising radioactivity and cancer in Burke County seriously is acting irresponsibly and dangerously."
The NRC has reviewed Mangano's study, Hannah said. "This particular gentleman, for a number of years, has been a very active nuclear activist. He did not correct for population increases."
However, population increases should not matter because the study looks not at total cases, but rates of cancer per 100,000 people.
"I'm not here to say whether or not the American Cancer Society supports the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle. I am here to tell you Plant Vogtle has supported the American Cancer Society," Theresa Carter, spokeswoman, said at the hearing.
Local officials also lauded Plant Vogtle at the hearing and expressed support for the new reactors. "We have a lot of people here who depend on Plant Vogtle. They are very friendly to this community," said County Commissioner Alphonso Andrews.
© 2008 Inter Press Service