Georgia Power preps for more nuclear projects

Georgia Power is inching closer to doubling down on what few utilities in the nation are willing to bet on: building more nuclear reactors.

With work on two new reactors under way at Plant Vogtle, the company is considering asking state regulators as soon as next spring to let it take initial steps toward adding more.

There is a “very high” probability it will do so, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview.

If the company takes the leap and eventually gets a federal license, construction of more nuclear reactors is likely to push already rising electric bills higher. But it also promises to give Georgia more electricity without the carbon emissions being targeted by federal regulators fighting climate change.

Bowers didn’t offer an estimate of how much another round of reactors might cost or how much monthly power bills might rise. But he said, “If you build anything, there’s a cost to it.”

What Georgia Power builds is a big bet — using the promise of consumers’ money for generations to come — on where the state’s electricity future will be for perhaps the next 60 years or more.

“We are going to have to build something,” Bowers said. “It’s going to be based on what is the best economic choice for our customers.”

Extensive prep work is needed before seeking a federal license, and Bowers said starting that effort isn’t a commitment to build.

He said the company will evaluate whether to build a new plant or expand its existing nuclear plants — Vogtle near Augusta and Plant Hatch near Baxley in south Georgia.

Some environmental and consumer groups have blasted the Vogtle expansion, calling it uneeded and too expensive. They want the state’s largest utility to instead boost energy efficiency programs and use of alternative energy sources such as solar power.

Building more nuclear is “the most dinosaur business model,” said Liz Coyle, acting executive director of consumer group Georgia Watch. “It’s the riskiest, most infrastructure intensive (option). It might be good for their shareholders, but it’s the riskiest for my dollars.”

“Now is not the time for them to be looking at expanding nuclear when they can’t even complete the ones they’ve started,” Coyle said.

Georgia Power is the lead utility on the $14-billion-plus Vogtle expansion. That project’s construction costs are hundreds of millions of dollars over original estimates. The two new units are a year and half behind schedule, with the first one now expected to go online in late 2017, followed by the other a year later. The project contractor has cited challenges in meeting the latest schedule, Georgia Power disclosed in a report to regulators this week. Consultants for state regulators warned earlier this year that each day of delay adds $2 million to the project’s cost.

Georgia Power customers already pay extra — 4 percent on average — on monthly bills for the Vogtle expansion’s financing costs. Once the project’s full cost is rolled in, the company predicts another 2 to 4 percent increase that will stay on bills for years to come.

Consumer and environmental activists say Georgia Power has far more generating capacity than needed. But the company said it forecasts demand for more from 2020 to 2030, due to both growth in the state and shutdowns of older plants as they reach their lifespan limits.

New nuclear units can take a decade to get from design and licensing to construction and startup.

“We need to start the licensing process now,” Bowers said.

Just doing seismic studies, transmission analysis and other prep work before applying for a federal nuclear license could cost $50 million over several years. Such spending would have to win approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Chuck Eaton, who chairs the five-member elected body, said the state may have to consider more nuclear because of White House attempts to curb coal-burning power plants.

Stan Wise, another PSC commissioner, said, he is cautious about undertaking another nuclear project.

Georgians will have to digest a “pretty significant cost” for the ongoing Vogtle expansion, he said. “I don’t see this commission embracing the next generation of nuclear until we get to the day when we know what the cost is (of the current expansion) and are actually generating from” the new units.

Georgia Power is already a pioneer in what was envisioned to be a stampede of new nuclear construction in the U.S. The Vogtle reactors were the first newly licensed units in 30 years. TVA in Tennessee and SCANA Corp. in South Carolina also have nuclear construction underway.

But the idea of a broad resurgence has dimmed, in part because falling natural gas prices have made that fuel a cheaper alternative. U.S. utilities have 74 natural gas units under construction, vs. five nuclear units at three plants. And a far bigger wave of natural gas plants is in the works.

While many utilities started the licensing process for more nuclear units, plans for some have languished. Several put their applications on hold.

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