SHELL BLUFF, Ga. (CN)- The Rev. Charles Utley was born in the rural town of Shell Bluff, Ga., in 1947, long before nuclear power facility Plant Vogtle erected its first two nuclear reactors in the community.
When Utley was a boy, people swam in the Savannah River next to where Plant Vogtle would later build nuclear reactors 1 and 2 in 1987 and 1989, respectively.
Today, very few swim, fish or drink from the river because it is one of the most toxic in the United States.
“One thing we’re seeing is the amount of cancer-related illnesses in the area,” Utley, who serves as a pastor in the community, said in an interview. “Before the building construction within the last three decades, Burke County [had] one of the lowest cancer rates in the nation. Now we’re one of highest… It came from exposure.”
Today, Plant Vogtle is constructing two more nuclear reactors at the plant. Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power, and Dalton Utilities own the nuclear units.
Despite massive cost overruns and delays in construction, the Georgia Public Service Commission voted unanimously last month to continue construction for Plant Vogtle’s nuclear reactors – a historic decision approving the only two nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. in the last 30 years.
“We’ve been fighting this for quite some now,” continued Utley. “It’s not a good investment and they are giving the construction bill to the taxpayers, which they decided with House Bill 31. Those who live in Georgia will pick up the bill for the construction of Plant Vogtle.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, meanwhile, applauded the commission’s decision.
“Investing in clean, sustainable energy infrastructure is a worthwhile endeavor that will have a positive economic impact,” Deal said in a statement. “Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will provide affordable energy to Georgians for more than 60 years while creating 6,000 jobs during project construction and 800 well-paying, permanent ones after. It is important that we stay the course.”
But Utley disagrees.
“A large majority [of residents] depend on Vogtle for work. [But] it’s only in the construction phase that they’re employed. After the construction phase, they’ll all be unemployed. That’s what happened with 1 and 2. It was the booming icon for employment. After that, it was a desert,” he said.
Becky Rafter, executive director of the local nonprofit Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, said in an email, “This decision was meant to save the plant, not the jobs.”
“The commissioners’ ‘long view’ is long, yes, but it is also narrow,” Rafter continued. “Any future Vogtle decision must include a cost-benefit analysis about the strain on our state’s resources regarding health, reproductive, and environmental issues.”
There are additional concerns, Rafter added, that any nuclear power accident or meltdown at Vogtle could eclipse the purported benefits of the nuclear reactors.
Rafter and her staff also expressed worries about unanswered questions linking locals’ low-dose radiation exposure and the high rate of the cancer in the area.
“That, in itself, was a question: Why move forward with something that’s poisoning [the people] in the area and then ask them to pay for it?” Utley said.
Renitta Johnson, who lives 17 miles from Plant Vogtle, believes residents’ health is being negatively impacted by the nuclear facility.
“My dad died from cancer… a lot of elderly people are getting cancer,” Johnson said in a phone interview.
Johnson said the water at her church, which is just several miles from the plant, has a smell to it and people refuse to drink it.
“Water testers will come tell you there’s nothing wrong with it. I think there may be something going on between Vogtle and the water supply we’re getting. A lot of us buy water tanks and put them in our homes just so we can have a clean supply of water,” she continued.
David “Loren” Dalbert says his mother, Clara, was born in Burke County and moved to California, but then moved back to Burke County in 2005. She lived two miles from the plant before she died of cancer.
“‘Don’t drink the water,’ she’d always say. She’d had cancer before in California. But then she had cancer twice since she moved here,” Dalbert said in a phone call.
Utley, along with the Rev. Claude Howard and the Rev. Peter Parker, founded Concerned Citizens of Shell Bluff in 2010 to help unite affected members of the Burke County community.
“We’ve been working on this for long before that, but we decided to formally create an organization out of what we were doing,” Utley said.
He added, “Whenever I’m looking at an environmental issue, in my experience, industry finds the least resistant area. Why not Burke County, the poorest county east of the Mississippi? A predominantly black community with no power.”
Utley said Burke County was an ideal location to build a nuclear power plant because resistance from the community would be low and it had natural sources like the Savannah River.
“When you put that together, it was an intentional choice… it’s an ideal place to build construction,” Utley said.
Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, believes that the country should be changing the scope of energy investments altogether to make investments in renewable sources of energy.
“That would be a much better use of money and better for the environment at the end of the day,” Armstrong said in a phone interview. “Because these projects are so expensive and because there hasn’t been one completed in so long, no one knows how much they’re going to cost.”
Armstrong warned that the expansion of Plant Vogtle will end up costing a lot more than expected.
While nuclear energy is better than oil and gas, Armstrong said, there are still dangers in nuclear energy, including a reactor meltdown. The nuclear reactors can also be targets for terrorist attacks, she said.
“It makes more sense to invest in solar. In South Carolina, we have a pretty solid solar industry,” Armstrong said. Why we wouldn’t [Georgia] put money into something like that? It doesn’t make a lot of economic or environmental sense.”