DALTON, Ga. - The South's biggest electric utility is moving ahead with plans to build America's first completely new nuclear reactor in a generation despite questions raised by the recent nuclear meltdown at an earthquake-damaged plant in Japan.
Southern Co. Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning said his company has the size, strength and long-term commitment to sustain the $14 billion investment it estimates will be required over the next decade to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga.
The new Westinghouse-designed AP1000 reactors Southern plans to add at Vogtle are designed to be safer and are located in a more stable area than is the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant on Japan's coast, Fanning said.
"This state is leading the renaissance in nuclear power with the first new units in a generation," Fanning told the National Manufacturing Summit in Dalton on Thursday. "Let me assure you that this project we are following through at Plant Vogtle is not in a seismically sensitive area and these new reactors are 130 miles inland from any coastline and 20 feet above sea level."
Fanning said the new reactor design will rely on gravity to supply water into the reactor core, limiting potential damage from the loss of off-site power like what happened following the tsunami in Japan. "This is nothing at all like what you saw at Fukushima," he said.
But nuclear power critics continue to question why Southern is getting out front on new nuclear units while industry experts are still assessing the radioactive leaks and other problems from the Fukushima plant.
"We understand that it is unlikely that a tsunami would reach Plant Vogtle, but the lesson learned from Fukushima is that the industry's claims of 'defense in depth' were proven inadequate because what they said would never happen did happen," said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes more nuclear power.
Without federal loan guarantees, Smith said, Southern Co. wouldn't be able to convince investors to back the new Vogtle reactors.
Georgia Power Co., the Southern Co. subsidiary that will own nearly half of Plant Vogtle, is pushing the new reactors as part of an overall strategy to pursue "all the arrows in the quiver," Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers said.
"We need the full portfolio of energy resources - new nuclear, 21st century coal, natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency."