Plant Vogtle: Crucial partner in Georgia nuclear project calls for cost cap

Dreams of a U.S. nuclear energy renaissance have faded around the country, but a lone project slated to be paid for by Georgia consumers and businesses continues to survive, despite a troubled history and massive cost overruns.

On Monday, the nuclear power expansion of Plant Vogtle cleared another hurdle. Sort of.

But this time a crucial partner in the project wants to cap future cost increases and shift more risk onto the parent of Georgia Power, the largest utility in the state.

The owners of the Vogtle project — representing most of the utilities in Georgia — voted to continue the project despite an additional $2.3 billion in cost overruns. The latest inflation in Vogtle's pricetag triggered the vote, the second by the owners in a year.

But Oglethorpe Power, which represents electric membership corporations in metro Atlanta and around the state, said its board’s approval depends on concessions by lead owner Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company.

Oglethorpe said it wants a cap on costs and for Southern to cover any costs above that, rather than sharing them with its co-owners.

Apparently anticipating that more troubles are likely, the cap would actually be $800 million higher than Georgia Power’s latest estimates of what it will take to complete the project.

“We are hopeful that the Southern Company will agree with a proposal to protect our rural energy consumers in Georgia who should not be responsible for excessive future increases in the costs of this project,” Oglethorpe chief executive Mike Smith said in an emailed statement.

A Southern unit, Southern Nuclear Corporation, oversees the project’s construction.

MEAG board members prepare for vote. LEFT TO RIGHT: L. Tim Houston Sr, James Fuller (MEAG CEO) and Steve Tumlin. The board unanimously voted to support continued expansion of nuclear plant Vogtle.

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With so much money and political capital expended on the project already, some consumer and environmental activists had wondered what it would take for owners and state regulators to pull the plug.

Not only is the project south of Augusta already billions of dollars over budget, it is years behind schedule. Georgia Power had assured state regulators early on that it was confident it could avoid such problems.

“From my perspective, we probably have come too far to cancel the Vogtle units,” Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols said in an email Monday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Others disagree. Mark Woodall, the legislative chair for the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, said Georgia Power is the most powerful company in the state, “but there are limits to their power” to keep Vogtle alive if there are more cost overruns in the future.

Vogtle’s problems are so severe that “it has taken all of their political influence to get it this far and it still may not be enough,” he said.

Georgia Power voted to continue the project as did the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, which represents dozens of city utilities around the state, and Dalton Utilities.

Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin Jr., who sits on the MEAG board, said Georgia Power “is working with us in other ways,” such as financing.

He also said recent progress at similarly designed nuclear reactors in China has increased confidence in the technology slated for Georgia’s new units.

Most consumers and businesses paying electric bills in the state are expected to face pressure to pick up Vogtle’s growing tab, whether or not the work is finished. Monthly bills for Georgia Power customer already include charges for the project’s finance costs and company profit on those expenses, a measure permitted years ago by Georgia legislators.

Georgia Power has said it won’t try to pass on to customers $700 million of its $1.1-billion share of the latest increase, though the remainder may be submitted for inclusion in customer bills later.

The PSC staff’s latest analysis suggests that the cost of continuing the project would be only somewhat less expensive than halting work, paying Georgia Power for what’s already been done and then starting over with another source of energy generation.

The cooling towers for Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 rise above the construction sites. The units are located in Waynesboro, Georgia. GEORGIA POWER

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Proponents laud Vogtle as a way to diversify Georgia’s energy mix for decades to come, provide balance against natural gas expenses eventually rising and lock in more power that doesn’t emit carbon blamed for climate change.

Critics point out the repeated cost increases. They say the power isn’t needed and that there are less expensive and better options for filling Georgia’s energy needs.

“The decision to move forward with Vogtle is a decision to waste more money,” said Peter Bradford, a former commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has been critical of the Vogtle project in the past.

A decade ago, Georgia Power was among a number of U.S. utilities that talked about pursuing new commercial nuclear reactors. But the predicted nuclear renaissance quickly evaporated, in part because of cheaper competing prices for natural gas, concerns in the aftermath of a nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant and, eventually, concerns about problems with the Vogtle project and a similarly designed one in South Carolina that has since been abandoned.

What it means for you

  • Nearly every Georgian who pays an electric bill has a stake in Monday's decision. There is likely to be pressure to pass along to customers the growing construction costs for the nuclear expansion underway at Plant Vogtle.
  • In 2009, Vogtle was expected to cost $14 billion and be finished by 2017. Now, the project isn't expected to be completed until 2022 ­ — at a cost of more than $27 billion.