Nuclear politics: Kemp, Granholm host dueling Vogtle victory parties

Despite their delays and expense, Plant Vogtle’s new units are touted as a turning point for U.S. nuclear power
Units 3 (left) and 4 (right) are seen at Plant Vogtle, operated by Georgia Power Co., in east Georgia's Burke County near Waynesboro, on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Units 3 (left) and 4 (right) are seen at Plant Vogtle, operated by Georgia Power Co., in east Georgia's Burke County near Waynesboro, on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

The monumental — albeit tumultuous — expansion of Plant Vogtle is one of the rare projects celebrated across partisan lines, but even the completion of the first two nuclear reactors built on U.S. soil in a generation couldn’t bring some top political leaders to share a stage.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday was the first to hold a large brouhaha in front of the bellowing cooling towers of Vogtle near Augusta, hailing the state’s workforce and Republican leadership for the successful expansion. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm took the same stage Friday to repeat similar praises for nuclear power, although President Joe Biden, organized labor and federal initiatives backed by Democrats were given the spotlight.

While both celebrations focused on different benefits of expanding nuclear power generation, they both had the same undercurrent: America needs more nuclear power, and Vogtle is now the blueprint to build upon.

“We are determined to build a world-class nuclear industry in the United States, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Granholm said, highlighting the Biden Administration’s pledge to triple the world’s nuclear energy by 2050.

Kemp’s thesis was similar. He said, “Generational projects like this require a lot of vision and dedication. Not everyone can see that bigger picture, but the men and women here today do.”

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to media at Plant Vogtle, operated by Georgia Power Co., in east Georgia's Burke County near Waynesboro, on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. The plant is holding a ceremony marking the completion of the unit 3 and 4 expansion. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The plant’s second new reactor, Unit 4, reached the finish line in late April and joined its twin, Unit 3, which has been in service since last July. The two reactors combined produce enough electricity to power 1 million homes, without adding heat-trapping carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Vogtle also has two older nuclear units at the site, which have been generating electricity since the late 1980s.

With the two new units online, Vogtle is now the country’s largest generator of carbon-free electricity, Georgia Power says.

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Credit: AP

Company leaders and politicians say Vogtle’s expansion could spark a new nuclear renaissance, especially as government-backed nuclear programs in China and Russia gain steam. However, Vogtle’s many setbacks — including years of delays and cost overruns — risk discouraging other private companies from repeat efforts.

Southern Company, owner of Georgia Power, is available to pass along its lessons learned in bringing the new reactors to fruition, said the company’s President and CEO Chris Womack.

Kemp indicated he’s on board for more Peach State nuclear energy, capping off his speech by saying, “Let’s start planning for Vogtle 5.” But that expansion isn’t likely for the foreseeable future.

“(Nuclear expansion) is something that should be in the immediate future of the country,” Womack said. “... And we’re going to do everything that we can to support that, but not any new investment by Southern (Company) any time soon.”

Cutting-edge costs

Both new Vogtle units were dogged by construction quality issues and other problems.

The expansion of the nuclear power plant in Burke County ultimately reached completion roughly seven years later than initially forecast. The project’s total price tag also blew past the original estimate of $14 billion to around $35 billion. Most of Georgia Power’s portion of those costs have — and will continue to — come out of the pockets of Georgia Power customers.

Georgia Power owns the largest share in the Vogtle expansion with 45.7%, followed by Oglethorpe Power (30%), the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).

Vogtle’s new units provide around-the-clock clean energy, but critics have said the project’s exorbitant costs, borne by Georgia Power ratepayers, outweigh any environmental benefits. Some have argued the carbon-free electricity Vogtle will provide could have been supplied faster and at a fraction of the cost through a combination of solar and battery storage systems.

Others, including staff for the Public Service Commission, have testified over years of hearings that the units will not provide any economic benefit to ratepayers, arguing customers would have been better off if natural gas plants had been built instead.

The cooling tower for unit 3 (foreground) is seen at Plant Vogtle, operated by Georgia Power Co., in east Georgia's Burke County near Waynesboro, on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Patty Durand, a clean energy advocate and previous candidate for the PSC, who opposes building more nuclear power plants, said she was disappointed to see bipartisan support for it — even if Kemp and Granholm couldn’t bring themselves to share the stage.

”Neither the federal government nor the state government acknowledges the pain of the ratepayer,” Durand said. “We’re at a time in our country where Republicans and Democrats won’t admit even when they agree on something.”

Durand said Vogtle would not have been built without a $12 billion loan from the Department of Energy because the private sector would never make such a risky loan, one that must be repaid by ratepayers.

Womack acknowledged there were many things his company would do differently in hindsight, but some of the challenges were unavoidable. A new supply chain had to be built from scratch, and the project’s original developer, Westinghouse, went through bankruptcy in 2017. Womack said the upsides of nuclear are too good to ignore, especially as new industries demand carbon-free electricity.

“If you look at other renewables, which we are supportive of, they’re very intermittent and have constraints and issues that nuclear doesn’t have,” he said. “Once a nuclear plant gets online, it runs and it provides a great value to the grid and to the customers.”

‘Follow their lead’

Georgia Power, the federal government and the nuclear industry had hoped the completion of the Vogtle reactors and their newly-trained workforce would provide momentum for nuclear power in the U.S.

So far, the nuclear revival has not come to fruition.

Cooling towers for all four units are seen at Plant Vogtle, operated by Georgia Power Co., in east Georgia's Burke County near Waynesboro, on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

There are no other commercial nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., or any signed orders to build new ones. Though new designs for next-generation reactors are in development, a much-hyped plan to build small modular reactors (SMRs) — a scaled-down version of the Vogtle reactors — was recently cancelled in Idaho.

Those concerns prompted Granholm to emphasize the billions of dollars of grants and incentives the federal government is dangling for new nuclear projects.

“Betting on new designs, new industries and new technologies, it takes guts. But it pays off,” she said. “It is now time for others to follow their lead.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks as reactor three is seen, Friday, May 31, 2024, in Waynesboro, Ga. Granholm visited a newly completed nuclear reactor at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

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At its peak, the reactors’ construction brought 9,000 workers to rural Waynesboro, 30 miles south of Augusta. The expanded Vogtle plant and its two new units will support 800 permanent jobs.

Many of those jobs are unionized, said Brent Booker, general president of Laborers International Union of North America. He said Vogtle “should serve as a model for achieving exceptional safety and operational standards going forward.”

As energy-hungry data centers proliferate and electricity demands grow, many experts consider nuclear expansion a vital tool for fighting climate change and building American energy independence. Granholm said the U.S. needs 200 more gigawatts’ worth of nuclear power by 2050 to meet its pledge.

“Two down, 198 to go,” she said.