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.
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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.
The broad outlines of the V.C. Summer fiasco could have been ripped from any headline in the late 1970s.
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.
Despite industry reforms since the 1970s, V.C. Summer’s collapse sounds familiar to those well-acquainted with the region’s nuclear past. Bad legislation, the Base Load Review Act of 2007, placed the cost burden upon the ratepayers and limited SCE&G and SCANA’s accountability. A secret report, along with internal emails between SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper, reveal a troubling array of warning signs and uncorrected problems.
While it’s true that there were new problems here, such as the Westinghouse bankruptcy, the broad outlines of the V.C. Summer fiasco could have been ripped from any headline in the late 1970s. In the case of those canceled projects, no genuine attempt at restitution was made. Those abandoned plants offer guidance for today.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.