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Southern Co. eyeing new nuclear plant

Nuke power is hot, and so is its waste

It's been almost 22 years to the day since a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island overheated and released radioactive gases into the air over Harrisburg, Penn.

The March 28, 1979, catastrophe stopped the nuclear energy industry cold. Since the accident, not one nuclear reactor has been built, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But time heals all wounds, even those inflicted by nuclear power.

With natural gas prices up four times over 1999 levels and crude oil prices 50 percent higher than 1999 levels, nuclear power, once the most reviled form of electrical production in the country, is gearing up for a second act. Just ask Atlanta's power-producing juggernaut, the Southern Co., whose subsidiaries own and run two nuclear plants in Georgia and one in Alabama.

At the same time Southern Co. officials are fighting environmental activists' efforts to shut down an existing nuclear plant — the 26-year-old Plant Hatch near Baxley — over safety concerns, the company is mulling expansion plans.

"Building new nuclear plants is not in our immediate plans; however, we are looking into ... all the elements that go into building plants," Southern Nuclear Operating Co. spokesman Michael Jones says. "If it's economically sound for the company and shareholders, it will certainly be an option."

Although Southern Co. is one of the few companies willing to publicly admit it is interested in building a new nuclear plant, the entire industry is quietly getting ready for a resurgence in nuclear energy.

Thanks to high natural gas and crude oil prices, nuclear energy is the cheapest way to produce electricity for the first time in more than a decade, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear power trade group. (Nuclear plants averaged 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour; coal plants, 2.07 cents; oil-fired plants, 3.18 cents; and natural gas plants, 3.52 cents in 1999, the last year such data is available.)

With energy demands far outpacing supply, even the federal government is pushing for a nuclear renaissance.

New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would provide $85 million in incentives to kickstart research into new reactors. The bill calls nuclear energy "an environmentally preferred product."

Such legislation will undoubtedly get the support of the Bush administration. On March 21, Vice President Dick Cheney said on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" that U.S. companies should build hundreds of new power plants to avert electricity shortages, and that nuclear power plants could reduce greenhouse gases.

Besides Southern Co., four other major U.S. power companies are looking into building new nuclear plants.

Jones says if Southern Co. does build a new nuclear generator, it would be at an already existing plant, either at Plant Hatch, Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, or Farley Nuclear Plant, near Dothan, Ala.

But no matter how scarce energy becomes, expect a legal battle royal over nuclear energy's second coming.

"This is most distressing news," says Glenn Carroll with Georgians Against Nuclear Energy. "The nuclear waste problem remains unresolved to this day."

Activist groups such as Union of Concerned Scientists are urging the NRC to shut down Plant Hatch permanently when its current licenses expire in 2014 and 2018. They cite the plant's history of employee contamination, reactor shutdowns and contaminating groundwater with radioactivity. Groundwater contamination data dates back to the 1980s, and the last reactor shutdown, caused by mechanical failure, occurred just over a year ago.

Then there's nuclear waste, the biggest headache of all for Southern Co. and Mother Nature.

The company is embroiled in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Energy, which Southern Co. says isn't disposing of nuclear waste properly. To compensate for the Energy Department's failures, Southern Co. is expanding its nuclear waste storage space at Plant Hatch.

Anti-nuke activists argue that Plant Hatch's storage space is nothing more than an outdoor nuclear waste dump along the Altahama river.

Nuclear waste retains high levels of radioactivity for more than 10,000 years.

"Obviously we'll be looking at those factors [waste storage, environmental impact, plant safety] carefully," says NRC spokesman Roger Hannah. "Just because a plant was having problems 10 years ago doesn't mean they can't operate safely for another 20 years."

The commission votes on whether to renew Plant Hatch's operating license in March, 2002. That decision would be based on the status of the existing plant and would not affect any application to build a new nuclear plant.??