You could be forgiven for taking a Geiger counter on a visit to Shell Bluff, Georgia. The town lies just across the Savannah River from a nuclear weapons facility and just down the road from an aging nuclear power plant. The river is one of the most toxic waterways in the country. The weapons facility is one of the most contaminated places on the planet, and the power plant is about to double in size.
Locals are outraged.
“We believe that Plant Vogtle is going to exacerbate the existing contamination that’s already in the area and make things worse,” said Lindsay Harper, deputy director of Georgia WAND, a women-led advocacy group working to end nuclear proliferation and pollution. “We believe that more money should be put toward cleaning up the contamination instead of continuing to produce more.”
Organizers from Georgia WAND and other advocacy groups gathered in Atlanta Saturday to discuss Plant Vogtle and related environmental issues and to register voters. The town hall marked the first stop on a bus tour organized by environmental leaders from across the South. The Freedom to Breathe Tour will highlight environmental hazards facing marginalized communities — starting with the expansion to Plant Vogtle, the only nuclear project under construction in the country.
In 2009, Southern Company began building two reactors, which are expected to go online in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The expansion has stoked fears of contamination in what is already a heavily polluted area, leading advocates to call for more testing. “We need independent monitoring in the area that can help us to paint a larger, broader picture of what’s actually going on,” Harper said. “We need more information. We need more money for information.”
Both the power plant and the weapons facility across the river produce a radioactive form of hydrogen called tritium that has been tentatively linked to Down syndrome in infants. Monitoring has found “elevated levels” of tritium in the groundwater near Plant Vogtle— too little to threaten public health, officials say, but enough to raise eyebrows.
Locals are also worried that pollution from the plant may be causing cancer. Epidemiologist Joseph Mangano found evidence of an uptick in infant mortality and cancer deaths in Burke County, seat of Plant Vogtle, after the facility went online in 1987. It is unclear if the power plant was responsible for the increase.
Research has shown that children exposed to radiation are more susceptible to cancer — leukemia, in particular — but it is unclear if nuclear power plants produce enough radiation to threaten public health. Studies in Germany and France found that the rate of childhood leukemia was significantly higher near power plants, and a study in the United States found that nuclear plant closures were followed by a decline in childhood cancer. However, similar studies, including one undertaken by the National Cancer Institute, found no evidence of a link. To settle the matter, the federal government undertook a multi-year study on nuclear power and cancer in 2010, but it prematurely halted that effort in early 2017.
Adding to the uncertainty, the federal government stopped paying for monitoring of contamination near Plant Vogtle in 2003, believing the power plant posed little risk. To allay public concerns about radiation, the government is funding an outreach effort to reassure residents that the facilities are harmless, but locals remain unconvinced. Advocates want more rigorous testing and continued research into the risks of exposure to even low levels of radioactive waste.
Notably, Southern Company conducts regular testing, which it submits to regulators. “Operations of U.S. nuclear plants are overseen by the government daily to ensure compliance with strict environmental safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said John Kraft, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company.
Locals, however, remain skeptical. “People just don’t trust that whoever is coming into their community has their community’s best interest at heart,” said Becky Rafter, executive director of Georgia WAND. She said that community members have long felt exploited and that independent monitoring is needed to rebuild trust.
“They have seen their neighbors and other people lose their land because of Plant Vogtle,” said Rafter, adding that black farmers were more likely to be targeted. At the weapons facility, she said, “black men were given the dirtier jobs. They weren’t allowed to wash their clothes on site, so they would take them home and wash them, and the whole family would get sick.”
Even if thorough testing finds the regular operation of the plant poses no threat to human health, there is always the possibility of a meltdown. Notably, nuclear power plants are most at risk of failure at the beginning and end of their operating lives. Plant Vogtle will be adding two new reactors as its existing reactors approach their twilight years, upping risk of failure.
Construction on the plant began in 1976, just a few years before a meltdown on Three Mile Island dealt a grievous blow to the nuclear sector. Widespread fears about nuclear power posed a serious challenge to an industry already struggling with high costs and meager demand. It would be decades before regulators would approve the construction of a new nuclear power plant — not until 2012, when officials signed off on the expansion to Plant Vogtle.
Southern Company undertook the project with the help of billions in federal loan guarantees, promising to deliver affordable nuclear power, but it has struggled to keep down costs. “People around the state are all paying for plant Vogtle every month on their bill,” Harper said. “You are a federal taxpayer. You are also paying for plant Vogtle.”
The turmoil around Plant Vogtle has also come as a disappointment to those who believe that nuclear power is vital to the fight against climate change. Unlike coal and natural gas, nuclear plants produce no carbon pollution and unlike solar panels and wind turbines, they generate electricity on demand. Some, however, believe that nuclear is simply to costly and have called for more investment in batteries that can store power generated by solar and wind for when it’s needed.
This is the outcome that locals are hoping for. Many Burke County residents are employed by Plant Vogtle, but they would rather work in wind or solar. “People are having to choose between feeding their families and taking a job that may contaminate their body,” Harper said, referring both to the power plant and the weapons facility. “We want to put our money towards civilians and people, clean economies and clean, sustainable jobs.”