Georgia’s Plant Vogtle nuclear plant under construction near Augusta. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Regulators: Georgia’s Vogtle project not like shuttered S.C. nuke plant

Two of the five commissioners at Georgia’s utility regulator said they believe the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion is in a better position to be completed than a similar South Carolina project that is being abandoned.

Georgia Public Service Commissioner H. Doug Everett said he has “100 percent confidence” that Atlanta-based Southern Company’s nuclear arm can complete the Vogtle project, even though the firm has no nuclear construction background.

“It’s like apples and oranges,” Everett said Tuesday after a PSC meeting, to compare Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle project near Augusta to SCANA Corp.’s V.C. Summer expansion, north of Columbia, S.C.

Likewise, Stan Wise, the PSC’s chairman, said the South Carolina project “did not have access to someone like Southern Nuclear,” referring to Southern’s unit that runs the company’s nuclear plants.

Under an interim agreement completed last week, it and Georgia Power, the main partner in the project to add two new reactors at the site, will oversee construction, with the backing of Westinghouse Electric and Fluor Corp. The companies are also in talks with construction firm Bechtel Corp. and Fluor about taking over construction.

Wise also argued the Summer plant was riskier because it has a smaller customer base and fewer partners.

Both projects have been hobbled by the recent bankruptcy of their key contractor, Westinghouse Electric, which supplied the designs for two identical AP 1000 reactors at each site, and once oversaw construction.

Both projects started in 2009, and are the first major new nuclear power plants to begin construction in the United States in more than three decades.

But V.C. Summer’s partners, SCANA and electric cooperative Santee Cooper, announced Monday that they are pulling the plug on that project. They said ballooning costs and delays, slowing electricity demand and cheaper alternatives have made the unfinished plant uneconomical to complete.

The partners projected that the plant’s price tag would soar to $25 billion — roughly double its original projections — and completion would be delayed several years.

Current cost projections for Vogtle, which is about one-third finished, are about $17 billion, but haven’t been updated since Westinghouse’s late March bankruptcy raised the spectre of additional costs and delays. The project was already more than $3 billion over budget and more than three years behind schedule.

Vogtle is likewise under review, but at a much slower pace than the South Carolina project. Georgia Power told the PSC Friday in a filing that it expects to include a recommendation at the end of this month on whether to finish the project.

The recommendation will be included in the plant’s semi-annual construction monitoring review — typically a six-month process.

Critics worry that state regulators are allowing Georgia Power to drag its feet on the review while it continues to sink about $100 million a month — which will come out of customers’ pockets — into the project.

To shave some time off the decision, Wise said Tuesday he would recommend that the PSC be ready to make a go/no-go decision by Dec. 5.

“Recognizing the Vogtle co-owners are spending over $100 million each month as the project review continues, I share the concern of my colleagues about the potential risk to ratepayers as each month passes,” Wise said Monday in a statement.

If Vogtle’s projected costs are dramatically higher, he added, that will the factored into the PSC’s decision.

But he also hinted that he would be loath to pull the plug for several reasons. He argued that the Georgia project has fewer risks because its costs can be spread over a bigger customer base than South Carolina’s, and it has more partners to split up the risks.

“I feel like there’s dramatic differences,” said Wise.

If the plug were pulled on the Vogtle expansion, Wise added, “I believe the ratepayers would be understandably upset if they got nothing in (new power) generation for the billions that have already been spent.”

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