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Posted: August 27, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Nuclear knowledge

Covington officials inspect investment at Plant Vogtle

Gabriel Khouli/

The nuclear power-producing Plant Vogtle is surprisingly calm for the middle of a weekday, a constant hum providing a static backdrop. There’s fairly little activity, though a number of bullet-proof guard towers and a barbed wire fence exterior belie the apparent serenity.

Walking through the complex, one runs into almost as many security personnel as workers wearing hard hats, and the number of gates, scanners and security badge panels put the average airport customs system to shame.

"They make sure you’d have to be insane to even think about trying to break in," Paul Warfel, Covington’s MEAG representative says off-hand.

Signs of security and safety are purposely placed around every corner. Nuclear plants are some of the safest and most secure places in America, and the operators want to make that point clear. 

Inspecting their Investment

Before their Wednesday tour of the nuclear facility, Covington city officials playfully bantered about the possibility of glowing green from radiation. The truth is workers at nuclear plants absorb more radiation from exposure to sunlight and everyday electronics than they ever will from the plant itself.

The future of nuclear power is of keen interest to Covington officials, who have pledged to invest $168 million in the expansion of Plant Vogtle. The plant’s first two reactors were built in the late 1980s, and two more are scheduled to be completed in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Covington currently receives nuclear power from both Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch, through its membership in Municipal Electric Cities of Georgia. Vogtle is located near Waynesboro and Hatch is located near Baxley, in southeastern Georgia. MEAG has 22.7 percent ownership in Vogtle; Georgia Power has the largest share at 45.7 percent. The two units are expected to cost approximately $14.5 billion to construct and will provide 1,117 megawatts of power apiece, slightly less than the 1,215 MW produced by units 1 and 2.

Covington has been allocated 26 MW of that added capacity, according to previous stories in The News. The city originally requested 35 MW of power based on population projections, but Utility Director Bill Meecham said previously he was satisfied with the allocation. Meecham said the city chose to invest in nuclear energy because it’s clean and the price is competitive.

Producing Power

When visitors approach Plant Vogtle, the 548-feet-tall cooling towers are the first structures to come into view. Many energy novices mistake the towers for the nuclear reactors, but the towers are present at coal power plants as well and simply used to cool water. In addition, despite the towers height, there’s little to them, as they are 90 percent hollow.

Nuclear power is created when uranium undergoes fission, where its atoms split apart and create heat. The heat is used to heat water in the reactor, which does not boil because it is kept under very high pressure. The water is then pumped into an area, where a separate system containing cooler water is also present. This cooler water, which never directly touches the water in the reactor, is then heated as it passes the other water tubes and is allowed to boil, producing steam.

The steam strikes turbine blades which spin the turbine, which spins the electric generator, which produces electricity. The process is similar to a coal plant, the main difference being how the water is initially heated. The steam is then directed toward tubes containing cooler water, pumped out of the Savannah River, so that water can be reclaimed. The heated river water then returns to the cooling tower, where it’s cooled by falling dozens of feet, and the excess steam drifts out of the cooling towers.

Containing any Threat

Although a lot of publicity surrounds the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, Ellie Daniel, a public affairs employee with Southern Company, said in reality that accident showed that the nuclear system is safe. The nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle are located in containment buildings with concrete walls 4.5 feet thick.

In addition, the containment buildings can only be located on the most stable dirt. The buildings can withstand earthquakes, tornados and plane crashes — even all three at once.

"We can’t have a Chernobyl in the U.S. because of these containment buildings," Daniel said, noting several other systems are also in place to prevent any accident.

Covington officials were taken on a brief tour of the control room, which could come out of an old movie, with its abundance of screens, dials and knobs. The control rooms for units 3 and 4 will have more digital components, including large screens. Nuclear plant control room operators undergo significantly more training than medical doctors.

"The doctors in my family laugh at me," said Richard, an operator at Plant Vogtle.

Currently, the plant employees about 900 employees. However, an additional 900 people come on site every several months when the fuel assemblies are replaced. Fuel assemblies are groupings of fuel rods, which each contain multiple uranium pellets. Each pellet is about the size of the end of a finger and provides as much energy as a ton of coal or 149 gallons of oil. Units 3 and 4 will nearly double the employment of Plant Vogtle. Covington officials hope Plant Vogtle will keep them well supplied with energy for many years to come.

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