“I am very proud that Georgia and South Carolina are leading the way in this nuclear renaissance,” he said at the third-annual French-Atlanta nuclear conference. He called the area the Silicon Valley of the nuclear field, a reference to the center of computer innovation and manufacturing in California.
He pointed to Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro and V.C. Summer Nuclear Station less than 125 miles away near Columbia, S.C., where the only commercial reactors built in 30 years are under construction. In between is the Savannah River Site run by the U.S. Department of Energy.
But he said the mounting spent fuel that is being stored on the site of nuclear plants -- including two that have halted operations -- is like constipation blocking the progress of the industry. The federal government requires nuclear power plants to seal up their spent fuel rods and keep them on site while also paying for the construction of a central facility that is supposed to store all of them forever. The Obama administration stopped work on the facility planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Echols said a better idea than storage would be to recycle the fuel rods as the French do so they can be used again. Current federal policy prohibits it.
According to the commissioner, Gov. Nathan Deal has given his support to the policy change and to locating a fuel-reprocessing plant in Georgia. The French company Arriva has proposed building a $20 billion plant in the United States that replicates technology it uses in France where 75 percent of all electricity is generated from nuclear power.
The French are eager for the business and have been lobbying Congress for years for the change.
Monday, Cyril Pinel, nuclear attaché at the French embassy in Washington, said he’s growing hopeful.
“I think in the U.S. there is more and more understanding that recycling can help,” he said.
The United States adopted its ban on reprocessing when Jimmy Carter was president because he feared the recycling could lead to weapons-grade nuclear material. Industry experts say that’s unlikely with current processes and safeguards.
Meanwhile, nuclear opponents blasted Echols’ comments Monday as ignoring the risks exposed by the Japanese crisis last year triggered by an earthquake and tsunami.
“The industry wants us to think that the reactors are safe, but they have not taken all the necessary precautions for predictable disasters,” said Bobbie Paul, executive director of the Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, one of seven environmental groups suing Plant Vogtle’s operating company over safety concerns. “It is irresponsible for our elected officials and for Southern Company to pretend they have.”