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Special Assignment: The Big Dig

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, May 19, 2011

WAYNESBORO, Ga.---One of the nation's biggest construction projects is going on right now about 40 miles from Augusta. The Southern Company is adding two nuclear reactors to Plant Vogtle. News 12 first showed you the progress a year ago in the first Special Assignment: The Big Dig.

Now, as Japan deals with a nuclear emergency of its own, we go back to the construction site in this News 12 Special Assignment.

And what a construction site it is. 42 acres, or about five football fields laid out side by side. Everything about this project is on a massive scale.

Cheri Collins is one of our tour guides today. She has more than 20 years of experience in the nuclear power business.

"Well, at the height of construction, we expect 35 hundred construction jobs," Collins says.

But to get a real feel for the progress, we need to go back to the way things were in February 2010. Back then, the Big Dig was 90 feet deep. The army of massive dump trucks with their six foot tall tires looked like toys at work.

Standing over that same crater today, you can see cement walls going up where the new number three reactor will sit. When it's finished, the nuclear reactor will be underground. The hole will almost be filled back to ground level.

It's progress you can see, but the nuclear landscape has changed in more ways than one. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan put nuclear safety under a white hot spotlight. And as even as the crisis in Japan continues to unfold, the construction at Plant Vogtle goes on.

We asked Collins if anything had changed in terms of construction.

"No, no," she said. "Nothing has changed on the ground here as far as construction."

Nuclear experts point out that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant actually survived the magnitude 9 earthquake intact. It was the tidal surge that left the plant without power, setting off a chain reaction of problems.

The new reactors here at Vogtle are being built to withstand a magnitude 6 quake. That's why they had to dig so deep for the foundation.

"A tsunami is not possible here," I prompted Collins, "but an earthquake is."

"That's true," Collins responded, "but Vogtle is not built on any fault lines."

If natural disasters aren't bad enough, they have to plan for man-made trouble too.

"Possibly a 9/11 type scenario," Collins said.

"So, in light of Fukushima, terrorism is still your biggest concern?" I asked.

"I believe so," Collins said. "You know, on the heels of 9/11, it did not take the nuclear community long to figure out that if someone had the audacity to fly planes into the World Trade Center, it's not a far leap to imagine they might have the audacity to target us."

But the biggest hurdle for this project may end up being the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Even after all this work, the NRC gets to have the final say over whether the Southern Company can actually complete the project.

"We don't anticipate (that) any barriers to building Vogtle 3 and 4 will spring up as a direct result of the Daiichi earthquake and tsunami," Collins said. "We anticipate getting our combined construction and operating license at the end of this year. That's the green flag, if you will, from the NRC that says you may proceed with safety-related construction."

And once that happens, an army of 3,500 people will get to finish the work they started here, doubling the size of Georgia's largest nuclear power plant.

Even with the increased awareness about safety, the Southern Company expects to get the green light from the NRC this fall. If they do, that will be good news for people looking for construction work or even long term careers at Plant Vogtle. That construction will go on for the next six years.

You can connect with those jobs by clicking here.


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