Georgia Power now says Vogtle nuclear ‘likely’ to bust deadline

Company cites need for ‘remediation’ work to meet standards

Georgia Power’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Company, now is acknowledging that the company is likely to miss the current deadline for completing the first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, a move that could further increase consumer costs on a project already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Potentially more worrisome was the reason given. In a filing on Friday, the company cited the need for additional “remediation work” on the construction project “necessary to ensure quality and design standards are met.” It said that, given the problems found, “primarily related to electrical commodity installations,” it is launching a broader review of the quality programs on the massive project.

Independent monitors and staff for state regulators have long warned that Georgia Power was falling further behind on the project and was unlikely to make its latest deadline, increasing the likelihood of additional costs. Those worries surfaced well before the COVID-19 pandemic raised still more challenges for the project.

But for years, Georgia Power and its parent company have repeatedly assured investors, Wall Street analysts and government regulators that it expected to meet its November 2021 deadline to have the first of two new reactors in commercial operation.

Only recently did the company say that timetable would be a challenge. In its Friday filing, the company wrote that “a delay is likely and could add one month or more.” The November date is years later than what the monopoly electric provider agreed to when it started the multibillion-dollar project with the approval of elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Many other electric providers in Georgia, including municipal systems and electric co-ops, are also contractually tied to the Vogtle expansion.

The new reactors at Vogtle, located south of Augusta, have yet to generate electricity, but monthly bills for Georgia Power customers already include charges related to the project. Additional costs for the project’s construction and additional company profits are expected to be rolled into customer bills later.

If the project is further delayed, Georgia Power faces the prospect of a short-term cut in its government-allowed profits. Long term, though, higher costs on the project could allow the company to collect increased profits for decades, based on the way its rates are typically set, if agreed to by the PSC.

Georgia Power did not provide additional information about why remediation work was needed. A PSC spokesman said that until analysis is complete, “it would be premature” for the PSC to discuss the remediation. While the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found at least two “more than minor” issues recently, it concluded they were of “very low safety significance,” according to NRC records.

“We hope the delays will be short,” PSC Chairman Chuck Eaton said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “At the end of this project, Georgia will have state-of-the art nuclear facilities that will be safe and will provide clean, carbon-free energy to Georgia’s residents and industries for decades to come.

Proponents of the project often highlight the reliability of nuclear power and its ability to produce lots of electricity without emissions tied to climate change. Critics have safety concerns and warn of long-lasting toxic waste and the potential for steep cost overruns that would make the project’s electricity more expensive than other options.

Georgia Power’s latest announcement isn’t surprising, said Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents groups opposed to customers paying for Vogtle’s overruns. “Georgia Power insists that everything is on track until they literally can’t.”

In an email, he predicted the project will be delayed three months or more, potentially adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the total tab for Georgia Power and its utility partners. These new delays mean Georgia Power shareholders will continue profiting handsomely while customers get nothing in return, except higher bills,” Ebersbach wrote.

David Rogers of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign criticized the company for earlier deciding “to gamble with customers’ pocketbooks and sink billions of dollars into another unnecessary mega-power plant.”

The Vogtle expansion is the only major commercial nuclear power expansion project currently underway in the United States.