Commissioner Tim Echols, GA PSC: Why Nuclear Matters

By Tim Echols

Just when we thought nuclear power might be on a comeback, well, stuff happened.   Only time will tell if Georgia and South Carolina can “jumpstart” a nuclear renaissance.  Let’s hope we can because low-cost baseload energy is a key to economic growth.

This was illustrated dramatically for me while I was in Germany this summer meeting with numerous officials including an economic minister for the country. As he told me how BMW was having their upcoming light weight electric car carbon-fiber body manufactured in South Carolina, he said, “The United States is about to enjoy mass re-industrialization because of your cheap energy prices.”  I couldn’t help but smile. He went on to tell me of other European companies setting up shop in the United States for the same reason.

But reality is that “new” nuclear power continues to sputter.  Remember back about five years ago?  States were working hard with private utilities to possibly build new commercial reactors.  Then, we had the accident at Fukushima which brought more regulatory uncertainty.  At the same time, our economy was in recession with natural gas prices continuing to drop primarily due to “fracking.”

Meanwhile, in our “Silicon Valley of Nuclear Power,” the work continued because a course had been charted.  Georgia was building two new nuke units at Plant Vogtle.  SCANA was building two identical units at V.C. Summer Plant, near Jenkinsville, South Carolina.  And in between them sat the 310 square-mile Savannah River Site, a highly protected federal facility run by the Department of Energy, where a special MOX facility is being constructed amidst a sea of other national security related projects.

There are three good reasons we need to complete each of these projects, despite the cost issues each are experiencing right now.

First, anything remotely related to nuclear means jobs—and many of them good paying jobs. 12,000 people work at SRS, 800 private sector jobs at V.C. Summer and another 800 at Vogtle. The last two figures will double once the new units come on line.  Add to that the cumulative construction jobs which should peak out at more than 7000, and the impact is enormous. Remember, jobs let you buy houses, cars, clothes and widgets—and cheap energy is a magnet for manufacturing these as the Germans testified.

Second, nuclear power is a great investment for southeastern states especially.  It gives us 24/7 base load power, provides grid stability, serves as a hedge against volatile natural gas prices—and all this without any of the emissions associated with conventional fuels.   The two new Vogtle units represent $4 billion in economic value for Georgia ratepayers over the next best available option—fracked gas, and you know how cheap that is.

Third, nuclear recycling and reprocessing allows us to convert the plutonium that once powered cold-war nuclear warheads into fuel that ultimately powers our homes.  What a trade-off! That is where the SRS MoX site comes in and why President Obama should not end the funding for it as he is threatening to do.

The mixed-oxide fuel factory, or MoX, will recycle weapons-grade plutonium into material that can be used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity.  And not too far away, the famed “H” Canyon facility as it is called at SRS, demonstrates reprocessing taking old nuclear waste and making usable material from it. These successes might help launch similar commercial facilities that can be built to handle the large inventory of commercial waste we currently have around our country. We need to take this step.

But the President is getting cold feet on this.  The MoX facility, which admittedly is way over budget, was started in 2007 and is the only one of its kind in the U.S.  Thought the cost is high, the benefits are immense as we evaluate the best way to handle these nuclear materials. We must move forward responsibly.

We can’t turn our back when it comes to nuclear power.  We have smart people who can solve the difficulties associated with this incredible resource.  Let’s move America forward.

U.S. Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit Consideration of NRC Yucca Mandamus Action: 905 days 4 hours 31 minutes 47 seconds


  • stevek9

    Is MOX really the way to go or would it be better to finish the development of breeders? GE’s Prism reactor seems ready to build. They are trying to convince the UK to build one as a Pu burner, although they can be a lot more than that.

  • Commissionertimechols

    Unfortunately, we are $4 billion into this. It is a little late to investigate other options. Let’s keep this one going, and explore other options as well as you suggest.

  • Heritage

    We are all watching the first four new nuclear plants to be built in the US in a very long time. If they are successful in terms of cost and schedule, the future of nuclear power will be much brighter. Success requires regulatory common sense. Recall that the regulator is also unfamiliar with new construction since most NRC people were not around when the last new plant was built. We need leadership from the Commissioners to be sure that the staff focuses on important issues and does not get side tracked by process vs the substance of safety.

    • Jeff Walther

      Given that the Chairman of the Commissioners is a minion on Harry Reid and a co-author of the senseless paper which gave academic cover for killing Yucca Mountain, the last thing we want is leadership from the commissioners. We want them to stay as far away as possible. Unfortunately, the NRC has been politically stacked against nuclear electricity generation.

      • Brian Mays

        The Chairman is a politically appointed dud, but the rest of the Commissioners are highly qualified and take their job very seriously. I would like some leadership from four out of five on the Commission.

        • Jeff Walther

          How much power does having the Chairmanship give McFarlane compared to the other commissioners? If it’s not much, that would be a relief.

          • Brian Mays

            How much power does having the Chairmanship give McFarlane compared to the other commissioners?

            Unfortunately, the powers of the chairman of the NRC was significantly expanded as part of the changes put in place after the TMI accident.

  • jameshrust

    Great article. This may cause a restart of programs to recycle nuclear fuels. This is necessary to reduce the volume of nuclear waste and recover valuable fissionable materials. The area of Georgia and South Carolina that embraces 8 nuclear power plants and the Savannah River Plant has the power production and trained scientific personnel to start a “Silicon Valley of Nuclear Power” as mentioned by Commissioner Echols.
    Dr. James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering (Georgia Tech ret.)

  • Noah Weinrich

    Excellent article. I truly hope we manage to follow this project through, as it seems to be an essential step in the progress of the U.S. energy policy.

  • jameshrust

    Commissioner Echols is correct that nuclear power is a source of economical electricity because of the high reliability and long life of nuclear power plants. Current nuclear power plants operate 8000 hours or more per year and have lifetimes of fifty years. Thus a one kilowatt nuclear power plant will generate 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity during its lifetime. If the plant costs $8000 per kilowatt(which implies $8.8 billion for the Plant Vogle 1100 MW plant), a simplified capital cost would be 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.
    In contrast nuclear power is far cheaper than renewable energy sources of solar or wind. A solar plant in Georgia may have a useful life of 25 years and a one kilowatt solar plant may produce 1200 kilowatt-hours per year. Over its lifetime a Georgia solar plant would produce 30,000 kilowatt-hours. Using a conservative cost of $3000 per kilowatt for a solar plant yields a simplified capital cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hours.
    James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering (ret.)

  • jagiela

    Nuclear Energy will come back in Asia. Due to their fast growing economies, their need for power is tremendous. To power a country like India (with four times the population in one third the area) with coal would cause such suffocating pollution that its just not an option.

    The so called renewables are so expensive and the countries are so poor, that they will never pursue them.

    That leaves only nuclear as a viable option. Now the beauty of an Asian renaissance, is that its coming in countries like India. They have their own nuclear industry and a desperately poor populace. That don’t have time for all the silly bells and whistle gold plating we put into our plants and they will build bare bones plants that are safe and cost at most a third of ours

    Then the world will have to match India or see its industry move there. Cheap nuclear power will spread throughout the globe as it once promised to do.