COMMENTARY: West Virginia Legislature Could Make a Big Mistake on Nuclear Energy Monday

COMMENTARY:  West Virginia Legislature Could Make a Big Mistake on Nuclear Energy Monday

By David Shanet Clark, M.Ed.

With the West Virginia Legislature voting on bills to deregulate and fast-track new nuclear energy power plants this week, rate- and taxpayers would be well- advised to consider the recent case of "Plant Vogtle" -- a set of nuclear power reactors and generators in Georgia along the Savannah River.

Regional electric ratepayers there will be tabbed at least $3.89 a month in charges as the second series of megawatt generator reactors go online. Southern power Plant Vogtle - named for WWII pilot and Southern Power chairman Alvin Vogtle - generates electricity for over a million users east of Atlanta.  However, their Westinghouse and General Electric reactors and their giant steam turbine systems, along with the tall "natural draft" smokestacks, have routinely gone over approved bid price -- by billions of dollars.

The delayed costs, the risks of human error and the euphemistic "externalized costs" of a nuclear energy utility were punctuated in recent events by the Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster in Japan in 2011, and, as seen by millions recently, in the harrowing and horrific 2019 HBO drama titled "Chernobyl" with Jared Harris. While Plant Vogtle's two Westinghouse/GE reactors are now actually up and working, Georgians have been bombarded, for over thirty years, with rate hikes, litigation, cost overruns, evasive and debatable lobbying information -- and a never-ending series of safety and environmental questions. 

The Savannah River Valley where Plant Vogtle was placed had already been blighted by atomic Cold War carelessness, in a way not too different from our own Kanawha, Guyandotte, Big Sandy and Ohio "Chemical  Valley" waterways. The Pacific Ocean itself took the brunt of the Fukushima disaster, and, as we saw in "Chernobyl", an (entirely possible) core reactor meltdown would have fatal and geologically devastating effects.

The recent fire at the Belle DuPont chlorine caustic chemical facility and the shocking 2014 Elk River 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol tank collapse disaster point to the logical limits of human contingency planning. The Elk River tank debacle affected many thousands, physically hurt hundreds and put at least 16 people in the hospital from shower and bath burns.  In addition, the documented record of INCO Special Metals and the Portsmouth diffusion facility's radioactive polluting activities during the late 20th century make me very alert and interrogative about any new nuclear power plans in West Virginia.

Georgians watched the endless back and forth, the ceaseless wrangling, as the Georgia utility rate commissions and regulatory boards encountered -- and allowed -- an almost unlimited series and variety of cost overruns, delays, and demands for larger compensation amounts for Plant Voegtl, going back to the 1980's. Collusion and coercion were only lightly veiled as the Southern Power giant (with GE and Westinghouse) forced concessions again and again from state and national regulatory boards and the Georgia public treasury.

Luckily in Georgia the first two nuclear plants are now safely online and producing. But is that any guarantee that the same will be true in Parkersburg, Kanawha City or Ceredo- Kenova? Wanting to avoid this type of public finance giveaway is the result of my experience in Georgia after seeing first hand (and paying for) the Plant Vogtle "process."

I also remember seeing Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in late 1979, along the beautiful Susquehanna River, and then in the foreground also seeing the river island's smokestacks, Three Mile Island's broken nuclear reactor. Perhaps it is because the Three Mile Island nuclear power reactor accident happened on my seventeenth birthday, but I personally question the perfection of Westinghouse and General Electric components as fail-safe.

As I have watched these core (literally) components' costs rise into the $20 billion range recently in the Peach State, l have to ask: do I want that for Lesage, in Chelyan, Malden or on the St. Albans corridor? 

West Virginia's actual future energy needs are substantial, but we possess conservation- oriented renewables, a solar energy industry, our still- abundant domestic natural gas energy resource and related infrastructure. These have known impacts and a known cost structure. Whereas the rate impact and future decades' costs of nuclear power, like near the Vogtle Plant, are unknown.

Unknown costs (which are still skyrocketing in Georgia) and unknown risks. To me these are unacceptable costs and unacceptable risks. But the community will face these unacceptable risks and unknown costs if the Legislature  decides to privatize our common West Virginia resources by welcoming nuclear radioactive energy schemes into the state.

I'm told that about half of the legislators see the nuclear situation like I do -- and perhaps many delegates and senators are also extremely wary of the largest "jumbo ticket" private/public utility plans for nuclear reactors. Before voting to deregulate, encourage and accelerate new radioactive nuclear premises, all living, breathing human beings should spend a few hours watching the archived Spring 2014 BBC and CNN coverage of Fukushima Daiichi, or revisit HBO's "Chernobyl."

Rate and taxpayers should seriously reflect on the impact of Georgia's "successful and safe"  $25 billion dollar Westinghouse and GE reactors, and the risks at Plant Vogtle. Legislators should investigate online the Hanford reactor and Columbia River experience in Washington State, where officials are still storing 53 million gallons of nuclear waste - hot waste going back to the Truman administration! And who knows how much radioactive waste went into the Columbia riverbed, the downstream waters, soil and air?

The Kanawha River has suffered enough, and we need to remind our elected representatives to protect the wild and the wonderful. We need to steer away from public utility plans that feature both exponential unknown costs and exponential unknown risks. Current West Virginia code is written in such a way that the overwhelming risks, costs and environmental concerns of nuclear power are recognized and enshrined in law.

This session's SB 4 and House 2882 bills would reverse this conservative, common sense policy. Both bills should be voted down in Charleston this week.