Report: SC among nation TMs most at-risk sites for nuclear catastrophe

Fukushima nuclear site in experiencing major problems in Japan. / FILE

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- As radiation continues to leak in Japan following explosions and fires at several tsunami-devastated reactors, data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows several nuclear facilities in South Carolina are among the nation's most at risk for earthquake damage.

South Carolina has four operational nuclear power plants, and a majority of the state's population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear facility.

An Upstate nuclear plant in Seneca operated by Charlotte-based Duke Energy ranks as the nation's 8th most at-risk facility out of 104 U.S. nuclear sites, according to the NRC. SCANA's V.C. Summer nuclear facility in Jenkinsville is ranked 18th on the list. The NRC risk estimates are based on 2008 and 1989 geological data.

According to the NRC risk data, the Seneca reactor site has a roughly one in 23,000 chance of damage during an earthquake that could potentially exposing the public to radiation. The Jenkinsville facility has a roughly one in 26,000 risk of damage.

According to the the Duke Energy website, the corporation is watching the situation in Japan closely and notes "our industry takes very seriously our commitment to the safe operation of nuclear energy facilities and will incorporate lessons learned based on this experience into our safety and operating procedures. Nuclear plants operated by Duke Energy are protected against earthquakes and other natural disasters."

Duke Energy's website lists a number of safety procedures making clear that each nuclear unit can be safely shut down in the event of a severe earthquake as part of the plant design and points out "key safety systems in the plant are designed to withstand the ground motion that would result from a design basis earthquake," going on to illustrate that each plant has instrumentation in place to detect seismic activity and alert operators if a plant shutdown is necessary.

Both Duke Energy and SCANA are moving forward with plans to bring additional nuclear reactors online within the next decade.

Duke Energy chief executive officer Jim Rogers is urging regulators to keep laying the groundwork for a potential $11 billion plant in Cherokee County. Rogers recently told the North Carolina Utilities Commission that the Carolinas need more nuclear power to meet projected rising electricity demand and climate change worries.

"What we're really trying to do is move the ball forward to achieve the building of this plant," Rogers said. "If we don't move forward, then we lose the option, and I think that would be a mistake."

The company wants permission to invest an additional $287 million in development costs through 2013, when Duke Energy expects to land a construction license for its proposed nuclear plant in Cherokee County. The company has already been allowed to spend $172 million.

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On Tuesday, SCE&G officials in Cayce gave a roughly 30-minute presentation on the safety measures they have in place at the V.C. Summer nuclear facility in Jenkinsville. Seismic experts pointed out the fault lines in South Carolina can produce a 7.0 magnitude quake, and explained the plant is designed to withstand such a quake.

SCANA chairman and CEO Bill Timmerman said officials are keeping a close eye on the situation in Japan, but it doesn't give them reason for concern in the Midlands.

"I haven't seen anything that would cause me to have concern about our plant or our two new plants," said Timmerman.

SCE&G officials plan to monitor the developments so anything that happened in Japan isn't repeated.

"We'll be looking at the events in Japan making sure that if there are lessons learned for us here in the States that we can gain from, we'll take advantage of that," explained SCE&G Chief Nuclear Officer Jeffrey Archie.

SCE&G plans to build two new reactors in Jenkinsville, with the approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which hasn't licensed a new nuclear plant in decades. The company expects the first reactor to be operational in 2016 with the second starting to operate in 2019.

Anti-nuclear energy groups have been using the Japanese incident as a platform to tout alternative forms of energy. Former Green Party Senate candidate Tom Clements says now is the time to slow down the push for expanded nuclear power.

"We need to look for energy efficiency and conservation in a vigorous way, while at the same time pursuing more decentralized sources like solar and wind imported from the Midwest," said Clements.

Within the next few months South Carolina regulators will take a look at whether to allow the development spending Duke Energy is asking for to move forward with their project. Roughly 30 percent of Duke Energy Carolinas customers are in South Carolina.

A proposed change up for consideration in the North Carolina General Assembly would allow utilities to add nuclear plant financing costs to electricity rates, subject to a streamlined review by the state regulators. South Carolina and several other Southern states already allow ratepayers to be assessed for what's called "construction work in process."

Utilities contend the change would allow them to recoup the cost of financing new nuclear plants earlier, holding down the price consumers ultimately pay. Utilities and investors have been cautious in jumping back into financing new nuclear plants even as the federal government offers loan guarantees. No nuclear reactors have been approved for a construction license since 1978.

But nuclear power has gotten a new look in recent years as a carbon-free alternative to coal and oil. By the time Duke Energy's proposed Seneca plant is scheduled to turn on in 2021, its Seneca plant will be about a decade from the end of its 60-year life, according to Rogers.

Duke Energy serves 4 million customers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. The company announced plans in January to buy Raleigh-based Progress Energy in a $13.7 billion deal that would create the country's largest utility if regulators approve.

How does it make you feel to know that around two-thirds of the state falls within 50 miles of at least one nuclear reactor site? Vote in our poll below and leave a comment to tell us your thoughts.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)