The South’s legacy of abandoned nuclear reactors
The South has more nuclear reactors than any other region, and South Carolina is the nuclear epicenter. Home to the Savannah River Site and some of the first commercial reactors and deriving 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power today, the Palmetto State has a devotion to the atom that few can match. The cancellation of the V.C. Summer expansion project testifies to innumerable missteps, but our collective amnesia has missed the bigger story: The South’s long, messy nuclear history is a catalog of modest successes and epic failures.
Sadly, the V.C. Summer project shutdown is nothing new for the South. It has happened at least 22 times since the 1970s. Some plants existed merely as blueprints, while others were canceled mid-construction. Across the region, half-finished projects stand as emblems of bungled industry efforts. At its core, this history has been defined by secrecy, miscalculations and decisions made by the few at the expense of ordinary people.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Southern politicians envisioned regional transformation through atomic energy; the South would become an “energy breadbasket.” A network of elected officials, utility companies and industry lobbyists sold these projects as job creators, an endless source of cheap energy and boons to the rural communities located near reactors.
This building spree resulted in more than 40 commercial nuclear reactors operating at 23 sites and earned the South industry admiration for its “nuclear friendly citizenry.” Yet those reactors represent only a fraction of what could have been; approximately 35 additional reactors were proposed for Southern states, including a half-dozen where construction had started and billions of dollars were spent on the nuclear road to nowhere.
So what happened to those ill-fated reactors? By the late 1970s, projections for energy demands declined, construction costs didn’t match initial projections, and the accident at Three Mile Island soured public opinion. Local concerns mattered too.
In South Carolina, the failed nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Barnwell County, along with the staggering influx of radioactive waste from across the country, helped spawn the South’s largest anti-nuclear protest. Protestors flocked to Barnwell denouncing South Carolina’s role as the nation’s trash can.
In Mississippi, infuriated ratepayers gathered outside the Grand Gulf nuclear plant and burned their utility bills. Other plants were plagued with serious safety issues and community opposition, like the now-operating Waterford 3 reactor in Louisiana.
The most notorious episode occurred with the Tennessee Valley Authority, where a corporation fought landowners in Hartsville, Tenn., to build the “world’s largest nuclear plant” — only to pull the plug. What remains in this bucolic setting are half-finished remnants and a lone cooling tower, fittingly called a “used beer can” by residents. TVA ultimately canceled 10 reactors after spending billions, which tarnished its legacy, permanently marred local landscapes and exacerbated a climate of distrust.
Today, the cavernous structures attract photographers seeking dystopian backdrops. Mostly though, they continue to rust away, a symbol of a beleaguered industry that has never resolved fundamental problems — namely projects mired in secrecy and unrealistic cost estimates.