Georgia’s Public Service Commission will vote Thursday on whether to go forward on construction of a third and fourth reactor at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. The project has fallen years behind schedule and is well over budget. Since 2009, with the approval of the state Legislature, Georgia Power has charged ratepayers billions of dollars in advance to finance construction of the project. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File)

Plant Vogtle’s fate could shake up next year’s race for Georgia governor

The debate over the fate of the beleaguered Plant Vogtle nuclear power project has morphed into a dividing line in political races up and down the ballot, as candidates for higher office wrestle over whether to support a project that has fallen years behind schedule and exceeded its budget by billions of dollars.

None of the seven leading candidates for governor voted for the 2009 measure to allow Georgia Power to charge ratepayers early for billions of dollars in financing costs to fund the construction of a third and fourth reactor, which faces a key Thursday vote by the Public Service Commission on whether to continue.

But each must now tackle a prickly decision that could help shape next year’s election:

  • Abandon a project that’s widely supported by the state’s political establishment and backed by Georgia Power, one of the most powerful forces in the state, as a crucial economic development necessity.
  • Or rally behind a troubled project that has already cost consumers nearly $2.4 billion and will continue to charge the average residential customer at least $100 a year until it is finished — in 2022 at the earliest.

Threading that needle is particularly complicated for Republican candidates, who are trying to navigate the anti-tax tide and revulsion of powerful special interests that dominates GOP politics. Democrats face their own difficulties, given that left-leaning labor unions back Vogtle in part because of the thousands of jobs it has created.

And it’s already factoring into down-ticket races for two seats on the all-Republican five-member commission. Two Democratic candidates, businesswoman Lindy Miller and former state Rep. John Noel, made waves last week when they were blocked from speaking about the project at commission hearings.

The commission seems likely to greenlight the request in some form, though there’s a chance the board might impose new restrictions. For now, most commissioners are playing up the implications of the vote on Vogtle, which is now the only ongoing commercial nuclear project underway in the nation.

“This vote will decide the fate of new nuclear energy plants in the United States one way or the other,” said Tim Echols, a commissioner.

“For Georgia ratepayers,” he added, “it will be more expensive either way.”

‘Our patience is not endless’

The measure that allowed Georgia Power and other utilities to charge customers with financing costs, certain taxes and return on equity was approved by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2009 under an enormous weight of pressure from utility lobbyists.

Its many backers included Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor who was an outspoken supporter of the project eight years ago and remains so today. He echoed a line several other top politicians have embraced: Essentially, that it’s too late to turn back.

“I support moving forward because ratepayers deserve a return on the money we’ve invested already,” he said, adding a caveat: “The project can’t be an open checkbook, and our patience is not endless, though. We need to insist on real accountability and progress now.”

The only other gubernatorial candidate in office at the time was Democrat Stacey Abrams, then a state lawmaker. She missed the 2009 vote because she said she was suffering from pneumonia. She is fuzzy about whether she supports moving forward with the project today.

“Given the level of investment Georgians have already made in Plant Vogtle, I urge the Public Service Commission to seek a solution that protects taxpayers and ratepayers without leaving behind Georgia workers,” she said.

Several other Republican candidates for governor tried to walk the same delicate line between support for construction of Vogtle’s new reactors and calls for more accountability. Georgia Power is a dominant force under the Gold Dome, and alienating the utility is a complicated political decision.

Georgia Power’s executives and its political action committee have poured at least $50,000 into the coffers of political candidates since 2015, and the utility’s lobbyists have spent more than $200,000 entertaining legislators this decade.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Georgia “must finish construction on the two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle for the long-term benefit of our state,” and he added that he trusts PSC members “will put ratepayers first.”

And former state Sen. Hunter Hill said he supports the continuation of the project on the condition that the PSC ensures the utilities have a “clear and actionable plan” to complete Vogtle without saddling Georgia customers with new fees.

They’ll be reminded of their support for the project by two Republican candidates who have pledged to approach Vogtle with a more skeptical eye.

Clay Tippins, an executive running as an outsider, assailed politicians for a “cozy relationship” with Georgia Power and pledged to more closely scrutinize utilities and the project if elected. And state Sen. Michael Williams criticized the “plant capitalism” behind the deal and said the utilities should pay for the cost overruns from their own coffers.

“We are rewarding failure,” said Williams, who has put anti-establishment stances at the heart of his bid.

Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, the other top Democrat in the running for governor, took a different approach. She said lawmakers made a mistake in 2009 by giving the utilities a “blank check,” and she urged legislators to take action next year.

“Part of the problem is the only groups of people who are telling us what is going on are the companies in question and the PSC, both of whom got us into this mess,” she said.

“I call on the governor and General Assembly to create a truly independent commission to get a real answer so we can make the best decision, and to put an end to regular people paying the bill for this project’s mismanagement,” Evans said.

We can’t ‘walk away’

That’s unlikely to happen, given the wall of support from Georgia leaders that includes U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Gov. Nathan Deal. In an interview, Deal said he trusts the PSC to act in the best interest of consumers and noted he’s a longtime supporter of the project.

His administration is actively exerting pressure on the commission to continue the project.

His chief of staff, Chris Riley, said in a tweet that the criticism of the project fails to consider “facts that unfolded outside the control of the four owners of Vogtle.” He added: “The PSC understands the facts and has protected ratepayers to date.”

It’s a reference to the problems that have waylaid the project. The construction had already fallen three years behind schedule and more than $3 billion over budget when Westinghouse, its lead contractor, threw it into more turmoil last spring when it filed for bankruptcy.

And earlier this year, SCANA and Santee Cooper rocked the energy industry with its decision to abandon the nearly identical $14 billion V.C. Summer project in South Carolina because of rising costs, falling demand for electricity, construction delays and Westinghouse’s bankruptcy.

The Democratic challengers running against Public Service Commissioner Chuck Eaton, one of two seats up for grabs next year, see an opening by casting the PSC as an opaque force for the status quo that ignores the voice of consumers. Noel said he’ll “speak truth to power,” and Miller said she’d bring more transparency to the panel.

“In my view, Vogtle is another example of the incompetence of a commission that hasn’t done its due diligence,” she said. “Do I think this will be a defining issue? I know it will bring a lot of attention to a seat that flies under the radar but has a tremendous impact on the state.”

And Georgia lawmakers may yet play a role in the legislative session that begins in less than three weeks. House Speaker David Ralston voted against the Vogtle measure in 2009 over fears it was bad public policy to have consumers “almost pre-paying for that construction project.”

“I was afraid we would get to the point that we’ve gotten to,” he said. “But having said that, we’re way down the road now.”

Asked whether lawmakers could be forced to revisit Vogtle next year, Ralston said he’s had discussions with Georgia Power executives who are “committed to trying to turn that thing around,” but he offered no specifics about potential legislation.

“I want to work with them to the extent that we can,” he said. “Looking at the long view, we need that facility to come on line. We need the power to be generated by it. I don’t think we should just wash our hands of it and walk away.”

The project’s critics say they’re not going to let its fate slip from the headlines. Ted Terry, the director of Georgia’s Sierra Club chapter, said he expects a groundswell of opposition from voters over Vogtle to continue to rock the debate.

Politicians, he said, must take heed “when you have conservatives, environmentalists and consumer advocates all in agreement about the incredibly high price tag of saddling future Georgians with billions of dollars.”

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