Two new nuclear reactors are under construction at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia, despite massive cost overruns, delays, and a legacy of environmental racism. Photo courtesy of the author.

The $29 billion nuclear boondoggle that’s poisoning Black communities

As members of Congress clamored last month to pass a spending bill and avoid a second federal government shutdown, much of the public dialogue revolved more around the standoff between Republicans and Democrats than the contents of the bill.

But for residents of Shell Bluff, a majority-Black, rural community on Georgia’s eastern border, the outcomes are clear. And they’re dire. Among the bill’s many provisions is a measure to extend a tax credit program that was previously set to expire. The program will allocate $800 million to prop up a nuclear power boondoggle that has been plaguing Shell Bluff and the surrounding area for years.

Situated in Burke County on the Savannah River, which forms the Georgia-South Carolina border, Shell Bluff is home to the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, commonly known as Plant Vogtle. Owned largely by Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, Plant Vogtle has supplied the state with electricity generated by two nuclear reactors since the 1980s.

The Savannah River Site and Plant Vogtle, on opposite sides of the Savannah River, have caused radioactive contamination and contributed to high cancer rates in the area. Photo ©High Flyer, special to SRS Watch.

In 2009, Georgia’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved plans to construct two additional reactors at the plant, and allowed Georgia Power to charge ratepayers up front for the construction cost. In so doing, the PSC ignored devastating health and environmental effects the nuclear plant had wrought. In the years following, the PSC would also turn a blind eye to massive cost overruns and construction delays, greenlighting the project to continue in spite of numerous red flags.

People in Burke County have consistently fought to stop the nuclear expansion, which stands to shape the future of nuclear energy nationwide, because it’s the first such expansion to be approved since 1978. Last year, it seemed that opponents to nuclear expansion were near victory when the contractor responsible for building the new reactors went bankrupt. But in December, the PSC voted to let Georgia Power continue the project, if Congress extended the tax credit program, even though it would mean an ultimate price tag of $29 billion, compared to the original $14 billion estimate.

Now that Georgia’s Congressional delegation has delivered the tax credits, the project seems to be back on track.

“It's just more money for [Georgia Power],” Elizabeth Barnes, a long-time resident of Shell Bluff told Scalawag. “They're not thinking about the lives of the people around these nuclear plants."

The Shell Bluff Country Store in rural Burke County, Georgia. Photo courtesy of the author.

With the 2018 midterm elections approaching, the next battle over Plant Vogtle may lie in the race to fill two seats on the five-person, all Republican PSC. The health and sustainability of Shell Bluff, and other communities in Georgia’s Black Belt region, hang in the balance.

A Toxic Legacy

Environmental degradation has afflicted the area around Burke County since the 1950s, when the United States government acquired about 300 square miles of property on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. The government forced an entire town to relocate. In its place, the Department of Energy commissioned the chemical company DuPont to build a facility, known as the Savannah River Site, to produce tritium and plutonium, two radioactive ingredients used in nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s, William Lawless, a Department of Energy engineer stationed at the Savannah River Site, blew the whistle on DuPont’s dangerous waste disposal practices. Lawless exposed how, for decades, the company buried radioactive materials in cardboard boxes and shallow trenches, where they leaked into surface water and were absorbed into the soil, contaminating groundwater.

Besides polluting the water, animals were also contaminated; a radioactive turtle was found nearly a mile away from the plant at a commercial hog farm. Radioactive isotopes can enter the human body through the food chain, eventually causing cancer. In the decades following construction of the Savannah River Site, cancer rates in the surrounding counties began to rise.

Mae Della Scott II, an elder who grew up in Burke County, remembered a time when folks only went to a doctor for a broken bone, and most everything else was healed with the medicinal plants that once grew wild in the area, but disappeared as pollution changed the ecosystem. "We had everything we needed right here, blackberry vines, grapes, plum trees, milkweed, everything grew wild and plentifully,” she said. “But it don't grow here no more."

The Savannah River Site not only put communities at risk for long-term health and environmental problems; the nuclear plant also posed a constant threat of fatal disaster. Several years after Lawless came forth about DuPont’s carelessness, a Congressional investigation revealed that the plant had a hidden track record of narrowly averted meltdowns that almost caused destruction on par with disasters like those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Despite the dangers and devastating effects of the Savannah River Site, which would eventually decommission its five nuclear reactors, Georgia Power got approval to build a nuclear plant to generate electricity just across the river in Burke County. In 1974, construction began on Plant Vogtle, right outside the unincorporated community of Shell Bluff.

Environmental Racism

As Georgia Power bought land for the Plant Vogtle complex, Black landowners in Shell Bluff faced a dilemma. Claude Howard, a lifelong resident of Shell Bluff, told Scalawag that in 1919 his grandfather bought over 600 acres to pass down to his children so they wouldn’t be “under the foot of the white man.”

But by the 1980s, a few members of the Howard family were struggling financially and wanted to sell 300 acres. Other family members disagreed. Claude Howard’s sister, Annie Laura Howard Stephens, said Georgia Power took advantage of the rift to acquire the land. “It was divide and conquer,” she said. Despite a lawsuit some family members waged to prevent the sale, it went through in 1985.

Annie Laura Howard Stephens stands at her grandfather’s grave. He bought over 600 acres of land in 1919 so that his children wouldn’t be “under the foot of the white man.” Now that land has been contaminated by Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle. Photo courtesy of the author.

By 1989, Plant Vogtle was fully operational (years behind schedule and 1,200 percent over budget). Since then, conditions have worsened in Shell Bluff.

“We noticed that lots of folks started coming down with cancer,” Stephens said. "My daddy, mama, sister, two brothers died of cancer, and another living brother now has cancer. My aunt, a cousin, and other folks down on the river died of cancer."

For decades, the company buried radioactive materials in cardboard boxes and shallow trenches, where they leaked into surface water and were absorbed into the soil, contaminating groundwater.

A study commissioned by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League showed that between 1987 and 2003, the cancer death rate in Burke County increased by 25 percent, while the national average declined by 4 percent. For Black people in Burke County, the cancer spike was higher, with a 30 percent increase. The study’s author, epidemiologist Joseph Mangano, attributed the rising cancer rates to heightened levels of airborne radioactivity and radioactivity levels in drinking water, river water, and sediment.

Vogtle has contributed to the Savannah River becoming the third most polluted river in the country. Its reactors use 75 billion gallons of water from the Savannah River each day to cool radioactive fuel rods. Many Shell Bluff residents have reported finding sores on fish from the river, which no one eats anymore.

“Plant Vogtle sucks up all that nasty, polluted water every day and thermonuclearizes it, and then returns one-third of that super-hot water back into the river,” explained Becky Rafter, Executive Director of Georgia Women's Action for New Directions (GA WAND).

“The other two-thirds goes out the cooling towers and evaporates out over the community," she said. GA WAND, based in Atlanta, has worked closely with Shell Bluff residents for years to mitigate damage from the plant and oppose expansion.

“We noticed that lots of folks started coming down with cancer,” Stephens said. "My daddy, mama, sister, two brothers died of cancer, and another living brother now has cancer. My aunt, a cousin, and other folks down on the river died of cancer."

GA WAND spearheaded a campaign to attain federal money for monitoring radioactive pollution after the the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division (EPD) discontinued monitoring. The agency last tested for radiation in 2003, and found radioactive isotopes in the air, soil, vegetation, animals, crops, groundwater, river water, and drinking water in numerous counties around Vogtle and the Savannah River Site.

After 2003, the monitoring ended with no explanation. In 2006, Georgia Power applied for a permit to build the two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. Both the Georgia Public Service Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the project in 2009.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to fund a three-year nuclear contamination monitoring program housed at the University of Georgia. Bobbie Paul, who headed GA WAND before Rafter and lobbied for monitoring between 2003 and 2013, said that for all those years, officials passed her from one agency to another with empty promises.

"They were basically trying to get us to quit," she said.

The public pays while shareholders profit

Ignoring all the problems caused by Plant Vogtle, the federal government in 2010 gave Southern Company $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to start construction on the new reactors.

The company further avoided paying for its own project by pushing a bill through the Georgia legislature to make ratepayers cover the cost. This rankled not only progressives and those who opposed the expansion, but also Tea Partiers and other fiscal conservatives who saw the move as an affront to the free market.

In the first 16 years after Plant Vogtle began operating, the cancer death rate in Burke County spiked 25 percent, compared to a 4 percent decline nationwide. The cancer death rate for Black people in Burke County increased 30 percent. Photo courtesy of the author.

Georgia Power contracted with a company called Westinghouse to complete the expansion, but complications quickly surfaced. PSC staff warned commissioners about design problems, parts not made to quality standard, key jobs not completed on time, and other issues that led to construction delays and cost overruns.

Meanwhile, numerous advocacy groups intervened at public hearings to add pressure to these warnings and to try to convince commissioners that transitioning to solar power would be quicker, cheaper, and safer.

Even the contractor, Westinghouse, had doubts. It produced an internal memo in 2011 indicating that the company didn’t have the staff, structure, or experience to adequately manage the project. Georgia Power obtained the memo in 2014, but didn’t halt the expansion.

The memo proved prophetic in March of last year, when Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy. That stalled the Vogtle expansion until December, when the PSC scheduled a vote to determine the fate of the project. By that time, the Department of Energy had committed an additional $3.7 billion in loan guarantees. But PSC staff urged commissioners to kill the project or make Georgia Power absorb some of the ballooning costs.

“Assuming the project is completed, ratepayers would incur significantly higher revenue requirements and a reduced economic benefit while the company's profits would increase," they asserted in a document filed with the PSC in early December.

The Savannah River has become the third most polluted in the country due to contamination from the Savannah River Site and Plant Vogtle. Photo courtesy of the author.

Despite their own staff members’ recommendation to pull the plug on Vogtle, the PSC ruled that the project could continue, if Congress approved $800 million in tax credits to prop it up. Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, whose third largest donor is Southern Company, managed to work the tax credits into the budget agreement that averted a federal government shutdown last month.

Shortly thereafter, three organizations opposed to the expansion appealed the PSC decision, saying that it rushed the ruling at the behest of Georgia Power.

As the future of Plant Vogtle is contested, the PSC elections loom large. Commissioner Stan Wise announced last October that he would not seek re-election, opting instead to seek a job in the energy industry, which he’s effectively been working for all along. Instead of finishing his term, he resigned in January, presumably to give Republican Governor Nathan Deal time to appoint a replacement, who will have an incumbent’s advantage in the election.

After stepping down, Wise told a local Atlanta radio station “I wouldn’t bet my house,” on the Vogtle expansion being completed according to the latest timetable and cost estimate.

Former Democratic state Senator Doug Stoner is running to replace Wise. Two Democrats, John Noel and Lindy Miller, have entered the race for the other PSC seat that will be up for grabs in the midterm election.

Noel, a former state Representative who founded a renewable energy company, has taken a defiantly critical stance of the PSC, saying in a press release that, “The people of Georgia are fed up with the long stream of rationalizations and broken promises about Vogtle…The relationship between the PSC and the utility is just too cozy.”

In Shell Bluff, members of the Howard family continue fighting the Plant Vogtle expansion. In 2010, they joined with other community members to found Concerned Citizens of Shell Bluff, which has become a driving force for environmental justice in the area.

Bernice Johnson-Howard, a Shell Bluff resident who worked as GA WAND’s field coordinator, told Scalawag that the nuclear development is dangerously short sighted.

“When the water is no longer fit to drink, the air too polluted to breathe, the vegetation starts to brown, you can't eat, drink, or breath your money,” she said.

Correction: Bernice Johnson-Howard, who has advocated against the nuclear expansion, lived for a number of years in Shell Bluff but did not grow up there.

  • About

    Based in Atlanta, Gloria Tatum has been a human rights activist for 50 years. She has fought against environmental racism and war, and struggled for civil rights, the ERA, reproductive rights, indigenous rights, gay rights, and Palestinian rights. For the past eight years, she has reported on local issues for Atlanta Progressive News.