If the people of Georgia are not tired of getting fleeced, then they are not paying attention. Every day, some new excess of the rich and powerful costs the common citizens of the Peach State dearly. A recent example of this is Georgia Power’s apparently successful insistence that it should receive advance financing for its new nuclear dreams at Plant Vogtle, in Eastern Georgia. Though only through a miraculous meeting of its production schedule would ratepayers see a single watt of electricity before 2017, the corporate fiduciaries at our electricity monopoly want to start charging us for the hypothetical honor of a completed project no later than 2012.
Even if an informed citizenry might accept this political and technical decision to build a new reactor, paying for it up front is suboptimal for at least three reasons.
1) Business basics militate against such moves.
2) Georgia needs a strategic assessment of its energy needs and possibilities, including more alternatives, that is impossible to imagine in the context of both a multi-billion dollar additional utility debt and Georgia’s taxpayers already paying for a future that they neither chose nor participated in planning.
3) Questions of cost, safety and transparency need further discussion.
For these reasons and more, Georgians need to be very suspicious of this most recent instance of official presumption and, apparently, cupidity.
Surely the Southern Company wants to hold itself out as an honest organization. Surely, then, the company is well aware that under provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, 80% new reactor loan guarantees are available from the federal governmet. Moreover, French nuclear interests are discussing guaranteeing the remaining 20% of all loans. Southern Company reps want more than 100% financing, apparently–more like 200% financing. Interest on a guaranteed loan may hurt cash flow, but it does nothing to reduce long-term prospects, particularly if the underlying investment is not only viable but state-of-the-art peachy keen, as Southern Company execs and nuke supporters would have us believe.
Furthermore, the Southern Company and the Georgia legislature are structuring this deal inequitably in relation to different classes of customers. Large commercial users will pay nothing extrato finance this new scheme–according to Senate Democratic Party leader Robert Brown, “they(big business)got a deal,” whereas everyone else will get soaked.
Finally, the whole situation has the whiff of the something fraudulent about it; on the one hand, the Southern Company wants Georgians to believe that this new power source is the best deal possible; on the other hand, 100% financing from the Feds is not enough to proceed with this great deal. Why, in such a context, should Georgia’s citizens pay a second time for something that won’t be ready for 5 – 10 years? Though very brief and rudimentary, even these points utterly undermine any sense of commercial trustworthiness in the Georgia Power position: it is either disingenuous falsehood or it is fraud.
As bad, or even criminally liable, as such misrepresentation is, far worse is willful ignorance. Any contemporary community without an energy plan is woefully ignorant. At best, people who choose ignorance are unwise.
To avoid such a lack of intelligence, Georgia needs a strategic energy policy, not continued handouts to fatten already bloated corporations. Such an energy policy, at a minimum, would include a comprehensive energy audit of Georgia communities and businesses; at a minimum, it would include opportunities for immediate conservation by all state agencies, local government entities, and individuals and businesses; at a minimum, such a plan would include investigating all Georgia’s reasonable energy choices; at a minimum, such a plan would include raising the energy literacy of all Georgians, in elementary schools, in middle schools, in high schools, in colleges, and in communities; at a minimum, such a plan would include an ongoing debate about choices in which citizens played the leading role–this last is what differentiates a participatory democracy from a dollar dictatorship. I’d personally feel more comfortable dishing out an extra $40 a month of my electric bill to finance those propositions, than to expand the bottom line of the already profitable Southern Company.
Lacking these and other elements of an energy plan, Georgia consigns itself at best to the good intentions of Georgia Power. While such a decision is clearly in alignment with the army of Southern Company lobbyists who camp out in the legislature every Winter, for middle class and struggling Georgians, such a deal is a dubious proposition at best, a dubious proposition only attractive to the willfully ignorant.
The final reason for not turning over hundreds of millions of dollars a month to Georgia Power from the wallets and purses and paychecks of working Georgians is that we need to consider several important issues about nuclear power that have not been a part of the debate thus far before the Senate.
The first concerns the lack of information and disclosure that characterizes the nuclear industry. Nuclear advocates cannot simultaneously insist on secrecy at the same time that they insist on having their way. When clean-up technicians participated in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident thirty years ago, General Public Utilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission insisted on signed confidentiality agreements and security clearances for all participants. Over 20% or the early documentation of the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission–NRC’s predecessor–remain classified as many as sixty-odd years after the fact. This environment of secrecy is compounded by the general lack of information about matters atomic, except if someone has the time and resources to file Freedom of Information requests and generally has the skill sets and patience of a top-notch bird-dog private investigator.
This lack of transparency affects other issues concerning nuclear power as well, such as questions about public health. Comprehensive tracking of populations adjacent to reactors is not standard operating procedure, for example, as it must be if we’re really concerned about the impacts of nukes. We know–no reasonable scientist disputes–that low-level radiation causes cancer, birth defects, and heart disease, among many other negative health effects. Only sporadically do long term studies happen at all; furthermore, when they do, the necessary data to track actual exposures and compare health outcomes is never available, so that population studies, which notoriously almost never yield definitive ‘proof’ of harm, are the only investigations that epidemiologists conduct. We simply don’t know, though compelling evidence might suggest caution, what the real long-term outcomes are of living with a nuke in the neighborhood. In such an environment, when clean and lower impact technologies are readily available, committing almost exclusively to atomic energy is paradoxical, except from the stand-point of profitability for corporate utilities.
Multiple other matters about nuclear reactors are troubling, or perhaps worse than troubling. Reports from Europe suggest that nations that have followed the nuclear path have been surreptitiously dumping various levels of waste in the world’s oceans. For fifteen years or more, American reactor operators have been availing themselves of opportunities to ‘recycle’ metals and other materials exposed to radiation and classified as ‘low-level’ waste, meaning that forks and spoons and braces might contain fission products that result from, or the unstable metals that make up, nuclear reactions that utilities use to deliver electricity. To date, we have no proven mechanism for dealing with a growing cesspool of high level nuclear waste that, though theoretically possible to compress into a small volume, also has the theoretical capacity to cause tens of millions of fatalities or more.
A complete list of problematic considerations concerning nukes would be much longer. Proliferation of nuclear weapons is also plausibly an inevitable accompaniment of nuclear power, as the case of India proves, and as our government’s concern about Iranian reactors strongly implies. Investments in nukes unavoidably compromise opportunities to research and develop other techniques not so beset with issues of cost, health, and safety. Investments in nukes preclude a longer-term commitment to sustainable technologies that require no further technical maturation to be applicable today at competitive or even superior prices–technologies such as wind power and solar heating, in particular. And we haven’t even considered matters such as terorist threats or other catastrophic breakdowns to which radiation-generated power is liable.
True enough, we face stark choices about energy. And we may have little option, at some juncture, other than to rub the nuclear lamp again and hope that the genie their turns out to be friendlier than we feared. However, the present return, after a thirty year detour that followed in the aftermath of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to a nuclear powered future is at the very least inappropriate without further democratic review. And that’s at the very least. At most, and significantly more likely, given the evidence that is available to anyone who does decide to pay attention, this represents another case of a fraud being foisted on a complacent and ignorant populace. At the very best, we will be buying the new reactors at Plant Vogtle at a cost that is dear but about which we have little choice. And that’s at the very best. At worst, and much more likely, given even more copious data that the discerning can see, we are signing a death warrant for unknown legions of our children and grand children, all to enrich the already fabulously wealthy.
And they want us to pay in advance. It’s crazy, at the best.