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The South’s legacy of abandoned nuclear reactors via The State

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.

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In South Carolina, the failed nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Barnwell County, along with the staggering influx of radioactive waste, 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 seven reactors after spending billions, which tarnished its legacy, permanently marred local landscapes and exacerbated a climate of distrust.

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Legislators and public service commissions must prioritize ratepayers first, better understand the risks involved in large-scale reactor projects and let history inform their decisions as well. If the industry wants to retain the South’s “nuclear-friendly citizenry,” it, too, must confront the nuclear ghosts of its past, and reject the hubris, secrecy and overblown projections that have doomed so many plans and, in some cases, left Southerners with little more than nuclear ruins.

Dr. Peyton wrote her dissertation at USC on the South’s nuclear history; contact her at cpeyton@cameron.edu.

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