I was surprised at the surge of emotions I felt as the new Vogtle reactor came online and into commercial operation. The construction of the project was massive — over 7,000 workers toiled. It had delays. Costs soared. But in the end, Plant Vogtle had more lives than a cat. With the rising sun of a new week, the first U.S. nuclear unit built from scratch in more than 30 years came to life. Here is how it happened.
Let’s start with the co-owners — any of which could have killed this project along its rocky path. Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power, the city of Dalton and Georgia Power worked together with dogged determination to finish this project. Scary moments like the bankruptcy of Westinghouse that brought financial trouble to its parent Toshiba would have sidelined most. Through this and more, Southern Co. and co-owners stepped up — keeping the gates of the plant open, even through the COVID pandemic. Their persistence and determination in completing this project is remarkable.
The men and women of the craft work force persevered too — through hot summers and cold winters, through COVID, through delays and often through the difficulty of being away from their families. Their sacrifice was not in vain because they have created something almost as complex as a spaceship and certainly more impactful to the average family. The union workforce also played a unifying role in keeping both political parties engaged in the project and cheering for success.
The people of Georgia, their elected officials, their chambers of commerce and our educational institutions provided needed support these many years. Even through the most difficult parts of this project, public support stayed strong. Sure, there were naysayers, but while their voices were heard the overwhelming desire of our stakeholders was for Georgia to accomplish this great task. Call it Southern pride maybe, but we wanted to show the nation we could do it. As an energy commissioner in the state, I felt this and it bolstered my own courage to support moving forward with the project.
My fellow commissioners on the Georgia Public Service Commission played a pivotal role. We had the constitutional authority to end the project, to make life so difficult for Georgia Power that they would throw in the towel and just take the tax write-off like counterparts in South Carolina had. Instead, every commissioner since the project began gave their full support throughout the construction process. We believed that nuclear energy made sense in a day when baseload coal and gas plants were disappearing around the country. We knew that Georgia businesses would benefit from the clean energy and additional capacity. We knew that our citizens valued reliability and forward thinking.
Finally, it mattered for America. Continuing our project kept the U.S. from forfeiting its leadership in nuclear energy. As other states have decommissioned reactors without replacing them, the world has begun looking to nations like China and Russia. The only way for America to continue setting international standards for nuclear safety and security is to invest in reactors and technology. China is anxious to export its technology around the world, locking countries into long-term, reciprocal trade relationships that hurt U.S. interests, jobs and exports. I was constantly reminded of — and haunted by— these and other negative consequences of giving up on this project.
Vogtle has set the stage for a wave of new construction we should see over the next decade around the country. It makes sense — because this project served as a training ground for thousands of nuclear workers and supply-chain companies, utility regulators like me and even for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which proved an untested regulatory process.
So, as this first “star” nuclear reactor is born, so to speak, I celebrate. Not just for me and the others who worked to make it happen, but for our children and grandchildren, who for the next 60 years, maybe even 80 years, will have carbon-free power, more job opportunities and better lives.
Tim Echols is vice chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission and founder of The Clean Energy Roadshow.