Grand Gulf productive fixture in Claiborne County

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 5, 2001

PORT GIBSON – The road winding through pastoral Claiborne County ill prepares a traveler for what lies ahead at Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. Lulled by lush hills and bayous draped in summer kudzu, the first-time visitor upon arriving at the nearly two-decades-old facility simply gawks and utters words of astonishment. Wow.

Indeed, the 522-foot concrete cooling tower, the first building on the horizon and dominating the complex, is awesome in size and strikingly familiar in shape. Steam pours in a billowing cloud from the top and mist cascades from ground-level openings circling the more than 1,200 feet around the base.

Spread over 2,300 acres and surrounded by farmland and hunting camps, Grand Gulf is 37 miles north of Natchez, one of two nuclear stations set on the Mississippi River in close proximity to the historic antebellum city. About 70 miles to the south is River Bend, near St. Francisville, La., a station similar to Grand Gulf, also owned by Entergy Corporation, but producing about 30 percent less electricity.

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Interest in nuclear power has grown since the late spring of this year, when President Bush presented his administration’s energy plan. That plan, among other things, such as the controversial drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge, calls for an increase in production of nuclear energy, including expansions at existing plants and permits for the building of new ones. A bill passed by the U.S. House this week affirmed tax incentives for the nuclear industry. The legislation will be taken up by the Senate in September.

A new day for nuclear power?

Joe Venable, Grand Gulf plant manager and a 20-year veteran of the industry, envisions the Bush proposal to increase nuclear power coming to fruition. &uot;There’s nothing official I can say for the company, but I believe someone in the United States will announce the building of a new nuclear facility in the near future.&uot;

Expansions already are on the horizon, including at Grand Gulf, where ground has been broken for a new auxiliary cooling tower expected to be complete in 2002. The auxiliary tower will allow the plant to increase its capacity during the high-demand months such as in the hot summertime, Venable said.

Today investors are more willing to put money in nuclear plants, Venable said, comparing the present attitude with the late 1980s, when builders at Grand Gulf had to scrap a second unit due to nervous investors. The half-completed unit stands abandoned adjacent to the active complex – too large to take down but not likely to be completed since it was written off as a business loss for the company.

Increased interest in nuclear energy does not surprise Venable, who received basic training in nuclear science in the U.S. Navy, began in the nuclear energy industry at River Bend during the construction of that plant and has risen through the ranks to the manager position at Grand Gulf, where he has worked for more than five years.

&uot;Now there has been enough information out there that the public can see how safe and efficient nuclear plants are,&uot; Venable said. &uot;There is less fear. There is an awareness that nuclear energy is very reliable and very safe.&uot;

In fact, he said, workers at Grand Gulf are safer than workers in other large industrial sites. &uot;We don’t put out anything other than warm, clean water vapor.&uot;

Phil Bass, director of the Pollution Control Division at Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said representatives of his office make visits to Grand Gulf and conduct inspections. &uot;Entergy as a company is a good environmental steward,&uot; Bass said. &uot;We have a good working relationship.&uot;

Bass, with the DEQ for 29 years, said Grand Gulf meets environmental requirements and seems prepared for any contingency. &uot;They are an industry that gets a lot of scrutiny.&uot;

Three Mile Island aftermath

Fear of nuclear power peaked in the United States in 1979, when an accident at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania caused rising temperatures in a reactor core. The feared blast from the reactor could have spewed deadly radiation throughout the surrounding countryside. Hundreds of thousands of lives were at risk. Scientists brought the problem under control before such a disaster occurred, however.

Not only has the industry improved its safety standards since that incident; it also has improved its efficiency. &uot;We’ve been reducing our costs for the last 10 years,&uot; Venable said. Still, no new licenses for nuclear plants have been granted since that incident, which was followed in 1986 by the disaster at the plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.

An official with the Mississippi Chapter of the National Audubon Society said the Three Mile Island accident has continued to haunt the people of that area many years after the accident.

Bruce Reid, director of bird conservation for the state chapter and a former environmental writer for newspapers in Maryland, Virginia and Mississippi, went to Three Mile Island to conduct interviews on the 10th anniversary of the accident.

&uot;People there said they still had fears of long-term illness. There were people there who were not convinced there would not be problems in the future,&uot; Reid said. &uot;There will always be fears among certain people about this technology.&uot;

History, future intertwined

Plans for construction of Grand Gulf were announced in the early 1970s, with Middle South Energy and Mississippi Power & Light as co-applicants. In 1980, before the project was completed, South Mississippi Electric Power Association purchased 10 percent of the station.

In June 1982, the first operation of Unit 1 took place. It is from that date the Nuclear Regulatory Commission dates the 40-year license by which Grand Gulf operates.

Venable believes the plant will extend its operation beyond the current expiration date of 2022. Already in the United States, several nuclear plants have received renewed licenses beyond their 40-year life expectancy.

&uot;This plant runs better now than when it was brand new,&uot; Venable said. &uot;It is more reliable. And the people are constantly in training.&uot;

A little known fact about Grand Gulf is the talent represented within its work force, Venable said.

&uot;This is a world-class facility, and some of the brightest and sharpest people in the state work right here at Grand Gulf.&uot;

Entergy purchased 90 percent of Grand Gulf in 1986, the 10 percent remaining with South Mississippi Electric to this day. In addition to Grand Gulf and River Bend, Entergy owns nuclear stations in the South at Russellville, Ark., and Taft, La., near New Orleans. In the Northeast, the company owns two plants in New York state and one in Massachusetts.

Awaiting federal repository

Nuclear plants, which provide about 20 percent of the nation’s power, await approval of a federal government plan to store all the country’s nuclear waste in a proposed site about 100 miles north of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain, Nev., said Jill Smith, communications specialist with Entergy. If the United States, which ranks about 14th in the world in nuclear energy production, completes the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent storage area, it will be the first such facility in the world. Environmentalist Reid said the length of time spent waste is expected to remain radioactive is a fact to give one pause.

&uot;We’re making lasting changes to the landscape and leaving behind hazardous wastes that will be around a very long time,&uot; he said.

Nuclear waste within 10 years has lost approximately 90 percent of its radioactivity. Still, the high-level waste can remain lethal for up to 100,000 years, and disposal of it keeps environmentalists on edge. This, in spite of the fact that the production of nuclear energy is more environmentally friendly than power produced from fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas and is cheaper to produce.

The opposition to nuclear power plants stems in part from political concerns but more from misinformation, a leading scientist has said in a treatise on frequently-asked questions about nuclear energy.

&uot;The concerns result most from confusion and fear, which, in turn, result from a lack of information and frequently from misinformation,&uot; said Dr. K.D. Kearns, writing for the Committee for Energy Awareness.

&uot;Energy should not be treated as if it were good or evil in itself, but valued only for its achievements in society. Energy supply should not be an obstacle to achieving the higher aspirations of society.&uot;