Plant Vogtle reaches major milestone with one of its new reactors

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The beleaguered Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion near Augusta gained a key approval Wednesday, clearing the path for one of its two new reactors to begin operations by early next year.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized Georgia Power sister company Southern Nuclear Operating Company to load nuclear fuel into Vogtle Unit 3 and commence startup testing — making it the first reactor to gain such authorization under a new license process.

Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are being developed near two existing units, and would be the first new commercial nuclear reactors built in the United States in roughly three decades.

The authorization for fuel loading comes after Georgia Power said last week it had submitted documentation showing it has performed all inspections, tests and analyses required to show that Unit 3 can begin safe operations.

Georgia Power called it a “historic milestone.”

“These new units remain a strong long-term investment for this state,” said Chris Womack, Georgia Power CEO, in written statement.

The fuel is already at the site, and nuclear technicians will support the fuel loading, according to Georgia Power. Startup testing will ensure that the coolant and steam supply systems can operate together, with fuel inside the reactor. Operators will then synchronize the unit to the grid and “systematically raise power to 100%.”

Andrea Veil, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said in a written statement that inspectors will “keep a close eye on Unit 3″ during the fuel load and startup testing.

“This is the first time we’ve authorized a reactor’s initial startup through our Part 52 licensing process,” Veil said in the statement. “We’re focused on safety so the country can use Vogtle’s additional carbon-free electricity. We will maintain this focus as we license the next generation of new reactors.”

Another new nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle, Unit 4, is still under construction. Georgia Power has said it expects to have Unit 3 operational by early 2023, with Unit 4 joining it by the fourth quarter of 2023.

Once the new reactors are online, Georgia Power says the four units will generate enough electricity to power one million homes and businesses. And as scientists sound the alarm about the worsening effects of climate change, the plant will produce electricity without contributing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Plant Vogtle expansion project is more than five years behind schedule and the price tag of the two units has already climbed above $30 billion, according to the Associated Press – more than twice their initial projected cost.

Many Georgia Power customers are already paying increased rates to pay for Vogtle’s financing costs, and more rate hikes could be coming in the near future, if state regulators approve them.

State-appointed construction monitors recently estimated that a massive backlog of incomplete inspection reports delayed the completion by several months and may have added $500 million in costs.

That backlog has since been cleared and Georgia Power said it has implemented lessons learned from Unit 3 to ensure similar problems do not occur at Unit 4.