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Plant Hatch relicensing draws fire

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As the nation enters a new millennium, many of its nuclear power plants -- facilities that went online decades ago, when the Atomic Energy Commission (now known as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was eagerly selling the nation on "clean, unlimited power that's too cheap to meter" -- are nearing the end of the licensing agreements that allowed them to operate. Among such facilities is Georgia Power Company's Plant Edwin Hatch, a 27-year-old facility near Baxley in southeastern Georgia, on the banks of the Altamaha River. Although the current 40-year licenses expire in 2014 and 2018, the NRC last month began holding hearings on the company's request to extend the license another 20 years.

Plant Hatch is a boiling water reactor, which means it uses nuclear fuel to generate steam from water drawn from the river and from underground wells to turn two enormous turbines. Its General Electric Mark I reactor, one of 25 such reactors built in the United States, has been discontinued in part because of concerns about its ability to contain radiation in case of an accident.

Even so, the 1,200-page relicensing request is being challenged by environmental and anti-nuclear activists, who point to what they characterize as basic design flaws as well a series of mishaps, including some very recent ones. Of further concern is a plan to store tons of spent nuclear fuel in enormous steel casks on the site indefinitely, while a consortium of U.S. power suppliers attempts to finalize a hotly debated (and increasingly problematic) plan to ship spent fuel from around the nation to an impoverished Indian reservation in Utah.

In fact, the first such cask was loaded and sealed at Hatch last week, and should be moved to its resting place outdoors by the time CL goes to press, according to Michael Jones, spokesman for Southern Nuclear, the division of Southern Company which oversees Hatch. "Everything went smoothly," he says.

Activists from the Atlanta-based Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia, the Altamaha Riverkeeper and others are working to call attention to their concerns about the plant.

Veteran environmental and human rights activist Pamela Blockey O'Brien has taken a lead role in the opposition. At a hearing last month in nearby Vidalia, as a panel of representatives from Georgia Power; its parent, Southern Company; the NRC; and state and federal environmental officials listened, O'Brien presented a lengthy, detail-laden array of charges to bolster the case against Hatch. In June, she filed a formal challenge on other grounds: the proximity of Altamaha Elementary School some three miles from the plant, a fact she calls "appalling."

And she becomes increasingly grim as she outlines the reasons she thinks Hatch is a disaster waiting to happen.

A series of radioactive spills and releases date back to the '70s. Among them: a 1982 incident in which 150,000 gallons of water flooded the turbine and radioactive waste buildings, much of which was allowed to seep into the ground. (In addition to being on the banks of the Altamaha, Hatch also sits above the Hawthorne Formation, a small aquifer linked to the Floridan aquifer, which provides water for much of south Georgia.)

In 1986, a rupture in the water tank holding spent fuel rods allowed 141,500 gallons of water laden with radioactive isotopes, including Cobalt-60, Cesium-134 and 137, and tritium, was released; radioactive residue was still present in river sediment as far as four miles downriver in 1999.

And as recently as May -- on the day the NRC was holding its public hearing -- a Hatch worker informed O'Brien and others that his feet had been drenched with radioactive water when a valve malfunctioned.

Plant operators, says O'Brien, have consistently downplayed the potential damage for from a major accident at Hatch. She points to congressional testimony in the early '80s that estimated potential damage from a core meltdown as hundreds of immediate deaths, thousands of injuries and up to $56 billion in damages over a 400-square-mile radius.

In contrast, she points to Southern Company's figures, which estimate damage costs for a major accident off-site at $99,659, and off-site exposure costs at $72,565. The company concludes that, "As the environmental impacts of potential severe accidents are of small significance, and because additional measures to reduce such impacts would not be justified from a public risk perspective, Southern Nuclear Company concludes that no additional severe accident mitigation measures ... are warranted."

The design of the reactor itself has been called into question. Unlike today's reactors, the Mark I reactor has no containment dome -- the huge bubble that makes nuclear plants so easily recognizable. Instead, Hatch is designed so that, in case of an accident that ruptures the core, the radioactive release is shunted into a massive tunnel around the reactor's base, called the "torus."

But, says O'Brien, this emergency process is contingent on a number of factors: that the complex system of valves will function properly while the reactor is in emergency-shutdown mode; that plant personnel, scrambling to evacuate, will ensure that the release is properly routed; and that the reactor's top, which is removable for refueling, doesn't simply blow off.

"But they've got a solution," she snorts. "Under high pressure, none of these valves would hold, so they've installed a bypass: If one of these things is headed for catastrophe, and pressure is building, it would bypass the more hardened vents ... and everything would go out the stack! That's Plan B: Gas south Georgia with radioactivity! Hello, Golden Isles, here's a treat for you."

Indeed, diagrams provided by plant operators confirm that an emergency bypass system, which includes a series of filters prior to any discharge reaching the stack for emission, contain a secondary system that will bypass even those filters. In that case, only filters in place in the stack itself will mitigate radioactive content.

The dry-cask storage facility being constructed is essentially a giant concrete pad, designed to hold a series of mammoth steel casks filled with tons of spent fuel. Concerns about the casks becoming brittle under the constant barrage of radioactive isotopes and vulnerability to deliberate sabotage are among the fears raised so far. The system is new, and opponents to a similar plan in New York were recently assured by an industry spokesman that, while there were some details left unresolved, they needn't worry because any problems would be ironed out in Georgia.

Despite its critics, Hatch is lauded by the NRC for its recent safety record. According to a March plant performance review, "[NRC inspectors] noted that Hatch has experienced several plant shutdowns and unplanned power reductions over the past year which were complicated or initiated by secondary plant equipment ... However, we have not identified any significant performance issues during this assessment period in the reactor safety, radiation safety, or safeguards strategic performance areas that would warrant supplemental inspection and note that Hatch continues to operate in a safe manner."

Southern Nuclear's Jones echoes the point, and also notes that Hatch enjoys strong support among the neighbors who live and work nearby.

"They're the ones who are most familiar with the plant," he says dryly, "except, of course, for those anti-nuclear activists in Atlanta." As to safety concerns, "the plant is operating better now than at any time in its history. Our safety records are better, electricity production is higher than it's ever been ... there are some documented instances in the past when it didn't operate as well as it could have, but those have been overcome. We think it's a very strong candidate for relicensing."

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