Ga. Power takes heat on nuke study costs

Georgia Power officials were grilled by state 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 updated 20-year power generation plan.

Those costs, which could ultimately grow to $300 million because of the way they are stretched out, would eventually be paid by Georgia Power’s customers, whether or not the company decided to build the new nuclear plant.

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 PSC staff and at least one of the 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 the 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. McDonald said last week he plans a motion that would deny the company’s request for the study funding.

“There’s not an accounting mechanism,” Chiock said, that enables 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.

Other commissioners didn’t publicly join in McDonald’s push to block the study funding.

But Commissioner Tim Echols questioned why Georgia Power wants to look at a new nuclear plant instead of a third expansion of its Vogtle plant, where it is currently adding two reactors.

“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 power plants in one place would result in lopsided power generation 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.