WAYNESBORO, Ga. - The two nuclear reactors rising out of the red Georgia clay here, twin behemoths of concrete and steel, make up one of the largest construction projects in the United States and represent a giant bet that their cost - in the range of $14 billion - will be cheaper than alternatives like natural gas.
But something else is at stake with the reactors called Vogtle 3 and 4: the future of the American nuclear industry itself.
The Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear power plant near Augusta is using a new plant design, a new construction method and a new system of nuclear regulation for what the industry says is a faster, better and cheaper system that will lead the way for a new generation of reactors.
Until recently, a new reactor construction project had not been started in the United States for 30 years, and now Vogtle and a similar project in South Carolina, V.C. Summer 2 and 3, are supposed to provide the answer to nuclear power's great questions: What does a new reactor cost? With the price of natural gas near historical lows, can it even be worthwhile?
As the current generation of reactors moves toward retirement, the two projects may be the industry's last best hope.
"Everybody's watching the construction of that plant," said Barry Moline, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, speaking of Vogtle. Several association members are considering investing in a nearly identical plant proposed by Florida Power and Light in Miami. Mr. Moline said of Vogtle's builders, led by Georgia Power, "If they can do it, that will be the model."
And if they can't, it could be years before anybody thinks of trying again. The new designs are supposed to be a tenth as likely to have an accident and to be easier to operate, but if they cannot be built roughly on time and on budget, then nuclear power will have trouble in the era of plentiful natural gas and emerging technologies like wind.
David Fuller's view These development plans have proceeded with little or no fanfare for understandable reasons. Nuclear power is controversial, not least because there is still no known way to render highly toxic plutonium waste harmless. Nevertheless, it can be stored and new nuclear plants are expected to be considerably safer.
Therefore cost is the big consideration and if this cannot be contained by the USA, then there will be less incentive for other countries to develop their own new nuclear capacity.
On a longer-term basis, we need nuclear power because it has none of the harmful CO2 emissions which are such a risk in terms of climate change. Interestingly, the US government is determined to ensure that it will never again be a 'hostage to fortune' in terms of energy imports. Its success with unconventional natural gas and oil production has also given America a considerable advantage in terms of energy costs among developed economies. New nuclear would extend this advantage.