Vogtle critics want regulator to study bankruptcy’s effects on project

Critics of Plant Vogtle want Georgia’s utility regulator to hold emergency public hearings on the nuclear power project after its key contractor filed bankruptcy. Photo: Georgia Power
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Critics of Plant Vogtle want Georgia’s utility regulator to hold emergency public hearings on the nuclear power project after its key contractor filed bankruptcy. Photo: Georgia Power

Critics of the troubled Plant Vogtle nuclear project say state regulators are ignoring the $8 billion elephant in the room, and want the agency to hold public hearings on the projects’ growing price tag and delays after a key contractor’s bankruptcy.

Last week, Nuclear Watch South, an environmental advocacy group, filed a legal motion aimed at pushing the Georgia Public Service Commission to hold an emergency hearing on the Vogtle project following the March bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric.

The public hearing is needed “in light of the PSC’s lack of response to the extraordinary circumstances clouding the future viability of the Vogtle 3 & 4 construction project,” the group said. “Nuclear Watch South is very concerned about the many millions of dollars that are extracted from the public each and every month and transferred to Georgia Power as real profit.”

Thursday, the PSC will hold one of its periodic hearings on the half-built project’s ongoing costs to finance and build two new nuclear reactors at the power plant near Augusta.

But the PSC so far hasn’t delved into the effects of Westinghouse’s bankruptcy on the Vogtle expansion’s future, saying it is waiting for Georgia Power to complete its analysis of future options for the project, including continuing construction, converting it to natural gas plants or shutting it down.

Earlier this month, consultants for the PSC’s Public Interest Advocacy staff suggested the Westinghouse bankruptcy could bump Georgia Power’s share of Vogtle’s price tag to more than $8 billion and add three more years of delays.

The consultants also said the project likely no longer makes sense economically, compared to cheaper alternatives like natural gas-fired power plants.

The Plant Vogtle expansion is already at least $3 billion over budget and more than three years behind schedule.

In their analysis, Philip Hayet and Lane Kollen, with the Roswell firm J. Kennedy and Associates, assumed disruptions caused by Westinghouse’s bankruptcy could add another $3 billion in costs and three years of delays. They said the projections are hypothetical but “consistent with providing the (PSC) a complete and accurate picture” of the project’s future outcome.

The extra delays, according to the consultants, could push the completion date out to mid-2022 for one reactor and mid-2023 for the second unit, and boost Georgia Power’s share of costs from $5.4 billion up to $8.4 billion, not including billions in additional financing costs.

In such a scenario, “it would be uneconomic to complete the Vogtle project,” the consultants concluded, even if Westinghouse’s parent company, Toshiba Corp., makes good on billions of dollars of guarantees it has promised.

A Georgia Power spokesman said the consultants provided their analysis to the PSC before Georgia Power reached a deal with Toshiba setting a payment schedule for $3.7 billion in financial guarantees.

“We are reviewing (the consultants’ testimony) and will discuss (it) with the Georgia PSC and all parties as part of the open (hearing) process,” said Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins in a recent statement.

Meanwhile, Georgia Power, the PSC, and critics of the company and the commission are arguing over what testimony will be allowed at Thursday’s hearing.

Tuesday, Georgia Power filed a motion asking the PSC to strike parts of testimony by two advocacy groups before Thursday’s hearing. Georgia Power argued that some of the testimony is irrelevant, and that the parties can’t both testify and cross-examine other witnesses in the hearings, such as Georgia Power executives.

“The Commission should not allow Nuclear Watch South and the Concerned Ratepayers of Georgia to knowingly and willingly offer testimony that is clearly outside the scope” of the hearing’s rules on such matters, Georgia Power said in its filing to the PSC.

PSC Chairman Stan Wise weighed in with an order reminding parties to follow the PSC’s rules “to preserve strict order during this proceeding, and to ensure fairness and the development of the record.”

In a public comment period at the beginning of the hearings, for a few minutes each, several members of the public usually air their opposition or support for the Plant Vogtle expansion before the five-member commission.

A few advocacy groups usually also testify or question company or staff witnesses during the hearings. Often, they face a barrage of objections from Georgia Power lawyers and stern commands from PSC board members to limit the scope of their questions and avoid injecting their opinions when cross-examining witnesses.