Groups sue to stop Vogtle expansion project

A dozen environmental and anti-nuclear groups are suing to stop Southern Co.'s Plant Vogtle expansion project, saying public safety and environmental problems since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor accident have not been taken into account.

The federal lawsuit comes one week after Southern received the license to begin major construction on two 1,100-megawatt reactors that are expected to start producing power in 2016 and 2017. The license is the first new reactor permit from federal regulators in three decades.

Visiting Plant Vogtle Wednesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the expansion in Georgia will influence other American utilities weighing new investments in nuclear power.

The environmental groups have asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to stop construction until judicial review. They also want the U.S. Department of Energy to force Southern's utility Georgia Power to release details about scheduling delays and construction cost overruns.

"The U.S. taxpayers are being kept in the dark about the huge safety and financial risks on the project," said Jim Warren, executive director of NC Warn, a nonprofit environmental group.

The groups warned of the lawsuit last week. Their concerns gained momentum after U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko voted against the Vogtle project, saying he could not get his fellow commissioners to commit to including certain post-Fukushima safety rules  in the license agreement.

A Southern spokesman said the company "fully accepts responsibility" to build and operate the reactors safely.

"We are confident that the agency fully complied with the federal regulatory requirements in approving and issuing the license and see no cause to delay construction under the [combined operating license], said Steve Higginbottom, a Southern spokesman.

Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern, is building the reactors with a group of municipal and cooperative utilities. The company is responsible for $6.1 billion of the estimated $14 billion project.

The federal government has awarded the project $8.3 billion in conditional federal loan guarantees, and Georgia Power's customers are paying down the financial costs of the project with a fee on monthly bills.

Both moves shift the financial risk of building the reactors away from Southern's shareholders and onto U.S. taxpayers and Georgia Power customers.

Georgia Power must file construction cost and scheduling reports with the state Public Service Commission every six months. An independent project monitor pointed out 12 issues in one of the reports to the Public Service Commission that could change the cost of the project, but that information in the document is redacted in the version released.

NC Warn's Warren has accused Southern of "deliberately covering up" the information. Georgia Power said the redacted information is deemed a trade secret.