Southern Co.: Japan quake and nuke crisis not expected to delay nuclear plant expansion in Ga.

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 7:35 PM

ATLANTA - The Atlanta-based Southern Co. said Monday it does not expect delays as it attempts to break ground on the nation's first nuclear reactors in a generation, despite an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that put several of that country's nuclear reactors at risk of a meltdown and focused new attention on nuclear power safety concerns.

Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power and its partners are seeking to build two Westinghouse Electric Co. AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle, near Waynesboro. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to decide whether to approve the AP1000 for use as early as late summer. The Southern Co. wants a separate decision on its request for a license to build and operate the expanded plant by the end of the year.

"We do not anticipate that events in Japan will impact our construction schedule or our ability to stay on budget," Southern Co. spokesman Todd Terrell said.

Industry leaders hope the expansion at Plant Vogtle will revive a nuclear industry that stalled in the 1970s as a bad economy drove down electricity use, costs skyrocketed and an accident at a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania swung public opinion against nuclear power and forced costly changes to safety rules. President Barack Obama's administration previously promised about $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to help finance the estimated $14 billion project.

Terrell said the AP1000 reactor picked for use in Georgia improves on safety, including a cooling system that can operate without electricity for three days, relying only on gravity and evaporation. The trouble in Japan's nuclear reactors apparently began when they lost use of generators powering their backup cooling equipment. Terrell said Southern Co. officials have had discussions with their partners and suppliers and do not anticipate any supply chain problems from suppliers in Japan.

As Japanese authorities struggled to regain control of their damaged reactors, the Southern Alliance For Clean Energy, which opposes the expansion of Plant Vogtle, called on the Obama administration to put funding for new reactors on hold and declare at least a temporary moratorium on new building.

"We don't say nuclear power is inherently unsafe, but we do say it's inherently unforgiving. When you start having situations like what you're seeing in Japan, they spin out of control very quickly," said Stephen Smith, SACE's executive director. "What we'd like to see happen is there needs to be a very thorough review of all the redundancies that have broken down clearly in the Japanese situation."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not put on hold its safety review of the AP1000 reactor or the proposed plant itself.

"As detailed scientific information becomes available from Japan, we'll fully review that information to determine any implications on both operating reactors and applications for new reactors in the United States," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

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