Georgia Power told to ‘put your money up’ for $175 million nuke study

Georgia Power officials were grilled by the state’s utility regulators at a hearing Wednesday on why they think customers should pay for a preliminary study for a possible new nuclear plant near Columbus.

The Atlanta-based utility has asked the Public Service Commission to approve $175 million for the study of a Stewart County site as part of its 2016 update of its 20-year power generation plan.

The final bill for the study could top $300 million after financing costs are included. If the PSC approves the study funding, it would eventually be paid by Georgia Power’s customers, whether the company decided to build the new nuclear plant or not.

In the hearing, Georgia Power executives said the company needs to get started on the study because it can take 17 years to license and build a new nuclear plant, which could be needed within 20 years.

“We believe taking action now is imperative,” said Alison Chiock, Georgia Power’s director of resource policy and planning, “to allow us to keep nuclear as a tool in our tool box.”

But the regulator’s staff and at least one of the PSC’s commissioners are opposed to paying anything now toward the study. They say the utility should pay for the study itself or wait until the next update of its long-term plan, in 2019.

"If it's that good, and you believe in it, why don't you put the money up yourself?" asked Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald. Last week, McDonald said he plans to introduce a motion that would deny the company's request for the study funding.

“There’s not an accounting mechanism,” Chiock said, that would allow Georgia Power to spend the money up front for the study and then seek it later from ratepayers.

McDonald apparently didn’t buy that argument. “Put your money up to show the commission your good faith … and we’ll respond,” he said.

Others on the PSC’s five-member commission didn’t publicly join in McDonald’s push to block the study funding.

But Commissioner Tim Echols questioned why Georgia Power wants to build a second nuclear plant instead of considering a third expansion of its Vogtle nuclear plant. The company is currently years behind schedule and billions over budget on its second expansion to add two new nuclear units at its complex near Augusta.

“It seems to me with all the infrastructure we have there … wouldn’t it make sense to build them there rather than picking up everything and moving it to the other side of the state?” asked Echols.

Too many nuclear generators in one place would result in lopsided power generation in the state and “significant” risk concerns, said Chiock. One tornado or other disaster “could wipe out such a substantial part of the company’s capacity,” she said.