Georgia Power mulls more nuclear after Vogtle

Georgia Power is halfway through its nuclear expansion project at Plant Vogtle, but the utility may not stop there.

The company — convinced natural gas and alternative fuels will not satisfy future demand — is already considering whether to start the process toward another, post-Vogtle nuclear project, a top executive says.

“I can tell you that we want to keep nuclear as an option on the table, so don’t be surprised if we start a licensing process to keep that option alive,” President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Bowers said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(It’s) a 10-year, 10-to 12-year process to build. So keeping it alive, I think we have to keep that in consideration.”

A decision on whether to proceed will be based in part on a calculation about whether another major power plant will be needed in the state by the middle of the next decade. It takes years to find a suitable site and move the project through local, state and federal approvals to build and operate a reactor.

Initial steps in that direction would not commit the company to construction, but it would lay the regulatory groundwork and preserve the option.

The idea of a possible future project further heightens the stakes for the closely watched Vogtle expansion, which with a pricetag of $14 billion is one of the largest economic development projects in state history. Georgia Power customers are currently paying a share of the cost through a rate surcharge.

“We want it perfect,” Bowers said. “If we don’t get it perfect, nobody else is going to build one in America.”

Prodded by environmental regulations, Georgia Power has shifted away from burning coal to favoring natural gas as its primary fuel. The utility said it has enough electricity sources for the next 10 years but will have to consider building more power plants after that.

The falling cost of solar makes it a more viable resource, but the utility and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., say renewables will remain a “niche” in the Southeast for now.

“If you’re going to take coal out of the mix, then you’re left with two options for diversity: that’s nuclear and natural gas,” said Chuck Eaton, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. “We’re expecting the economy to get better … there will be more demand on the grid, (so) I think nuclear will have to be an option.”

Environmental advocates challenge the idea that the United States will need to get its electricity from large, multi-billion dollar power plants because of the increased use of renewables and conservation.

“The electric utility industry is going through an incredible evolution, and by 2023 the idea that we need ‘baseload’ power will be an antiquated idea,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter. “Solar, wind and energy efficiency are more resilient and reliable than coal or nuclear and they are also cleaner, cheaper and safer.”

Through a combination of strategy and timing, Georgia Power finds itself one of the only utilities building new nuclear reactors from scratch now and may be among the few doing so in the future.

Low natural gas prices and the slow economy since 2008 prompted other utilities to shelve close to 30 new nuclear projects, but Georgia Power was committed to the Plant Vogtle expansion, and its executives have steadfastly said it was the right decision.

Nuclear currently makes up 9 percent of Georgia Power’s generation capacity. In 2018, with the two new Vogtle reactors online, that will grow to 14 percent.

That puts Georgia about in the middle nationally in terms of reliance on nuclear power. Thirty-one states currently have nuclear plants, and seven get a majority of their electricity from nuclear, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group.

Bowers cited several reasons nuclear power is viable for both Georgia and the nation: Environmental rules have pushed coal out of favor, to the point that the Georgia Power is closing 15 coal and oil-fired units over the next couple of years. Natural gas prices are low for now, but they are so volatile it’s tough to make long-term predictions. The falling cost of wind and solar help make renewable energy more viable, but many argue that for now those fuels remain best at peak times of day.

“The thing about fuel diversity, generally speaking if you are putting a high premium on fuel diversity, you don’t just go with the cheapest option,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates.

Nuclear power got a boost last week when four top climate scientists said it’s unrealistic to expect solar and wind to head off climate change and that nuclear is needed.

“Those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires,” James Hansen, a former top NASA scientist; Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution; Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide in Australia, said in a letter.

Besides Georgia Power’s expansion, the only other nuclear projects also are in the Southeast. SCANA is building two reactors from scratch in South Carolina. The Tennessee Valley Authority is building one in Tennessee. SCANA had won federal approval just after Georgia Power, while the TVA project was approved years earlier. Duke Energy is awaiting approval to build two new reactors in South Carolina but has not yet decided whether it will build them.

“I’d say Georgia is a growth-minded state that has a regulatory process that has been favorably disposed toward a nuclear project,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies that includes Southern.

The first two reactors at Plant Vogtle, built 25 years ago, ran well over budget and took 16 years to finish.

Earlier this year, Georgia Power said the new units at Vogtle will take about 19 months longer to complete than originally expected and cost about $740 million more than originally thought. The delays and increased costs are tied mostly to increased regulatory oversight, according to Bowers, so the company does not consider them a blemish on its ability to run such a project.

Vogtle will be the only site in the United States with four reactors. Georgia Power owns two additional reactors at Plant Hatch, in Baxley. Nuclear reactors need access to a lot of water. and usually are built in rural areas and near highways and railways.

In addition to figuring out a site for any future expansion, Georgia Power and other utilities face the controversial issue of nuclear waste disposal. Bowers said the utility continues to push Congress for a long-term solution.

“It’s frustrating that we do not have a national policy or strategy to deal with that issue,” he said.

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