Reactors under budget, but numbers under wraps

The project — now two gigantic holes in the ground — is so far costing less than budgeted, the company said in a quarterly report to state utility regulators.

Georgia Power won’t say how much less.

At the request of its construction partners, the company has designated most financial information about the $7 billion project trade secret. Regulators can see it. The public cannot.

The state lets utilities file information under trade secret protection if it is competitively sensitive. Westinghouse, which designed the reactors, and the Shaw Group, which is building it, are both negotiating reactor deals with other utilities and asked for the protection.

The quarterly reviews are intended to prevent the cost overruns that plagued its last reactor project, where a $900 million estimate for four reactors grew to $9 billion for two.

The trade secret designations, though, have made the public part of the review unusually tortured, as regulators try to get answers about numbers they can’t say out loud.

In a recent public hearing, the company said construction is ahead of schedule and under budget, although the big spending has yet to begin. It also asked the Public Service Commission to sign off on a change in its contract with Westinghouse and the Shaw Group.

The original contract allowed a number of costs — which ones are trade secret — rise and fall based on market indices that are also trade secret.

The company now wants to pay Westinghouse and Shaw fixed annual increases instead, which it says will save ratepayers money. How much it will save them is trade secret. So are the numbers used to calculate that amount.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in a project like this, and we’ve locked these costs in at a level that is well below our budget,” said Jeff Burleson, Georgia Power’s resource planning director.

State regulatory staff have questioned the change, suggesting that it’s being used to settle a dispute between Georgia Power and its partners over cost adjustments.

The details of that dispute “are trade secret,” Burleson said. “It was about how to apply the indices, how they are used.”

He said the contract change isn’t related to it in any case.

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