Plant Vogtle decision already roiling Georgia regulators

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Plant Vogtle decision already roiling Georgia regulators

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Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion under construction. PHOTO: Georgia Power

Georgia Power’s expected recommendation by month’s end on what to do with its troubled Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion is already spawning arguments between regulators and the company about how to handle the decision.

A lawyer for Georgia Power on Thursday said that if the company recommends completing the project, and the Public Service Commission agrees, the utility will also need a definite decision from the PSC approving additional delays and costs.

“We cannot go forward without you letting us go forward,” the lawyer, Kevin Green, said Thursday at a PSC meeting.

He said state law dictates that the PSC must make a decision or Georgia Power’s recommendation will take effect 180 days after being filed.

“To just punt this down the road, that’s not wise regulatory policy,” said Green. “You’ve got to make the hard decision.”

But some PSC staff members told the five-member commission that Georgia Power has agreed to delay Vogtle-related cost decisions in the past, and that the commission has to tread carefully.

PSC attorney Jeffrey Stair said PSC approval of higher costs could short-circuit a settlement between the commission and Georgia Power late last year on the plant.

The settlement cuts Georgia Power’s profit margin on the project if it isn’t finished by the end of 2020. It also puts the burden on Georgia Power to prove that additional cost overruns are reasonable and deserve eventual reimbursement through customers’ monthly bills.

“Once you approve a higher cost … you have forever foreclosed” arguing that the higher costs are unreasonable, said Stair.

The upcoming “go/no-go” decision on the Vogtle project is the result of the late-March bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, formerly a key contractor on the project to add two nuclear reactors at the plant.

The Atlanta utility has said it would consider finishing or killing the project, or converting the project to a different fuel. The PSC has the final say.

Southern disclosed estimates last week that indicate the project’s price tag will soar to more than $25 billion and take more than two additional years to complete due to Westinghouse’s bankruptcy.

Work at Vogtle, which is less than half-finished, has continued but the finish date has slipped to 2023, from the original 2017.

Last week, partners in a similar nuclear project in South Carolina decided the Westinghouse bankruptcy and other problems made their project too costly and risky, and shut it down.

According to media reports this week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has approached utility companies — including Georgia Power parent Southern Company — about buying state-owned Santee Cooper to help revive the project.

A Southern company spokesman could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

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