Plant Vogtle builders to regulators: Keep going

9:34 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 Business
Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 under construction near Augusta. Photo: Georgia Power

Georgia Power told state regulators that it should keep building new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, despite delays expected to nearly double their ultimate price tag.

The Atlanta utility, the main partner in the project, told regulators Thursday in a filing that its cost to finish the plant is about $4.5 billion, boosting its total to about $8.8 billion. 

It has said the two new reactors, less than half-finished, can be completed by November, 2022 — about two years beyond previous estimates.

They were originally supposed to be done this year, eight years after work began. 

The utility said finishing the project after a key contractor’s bankruptcy still makes more sense than other alternatives, including abandoning the project near Augusta, or building a power plant at another site that burns natural gas.

“Completing the Vogtle 3 & 4 expansion will enable us to continue delivering clean, safe, affordable and reliable energy to millions of Georgians, both today and in the future,” said Georgia Power President Paul Bowers. “The two new units at Plant Vogtle will be in service for 60 to 80 years and will add another low-cost, carbon-free energy source to our already diverse fuel mix.”

The Georgia Public Service Commission has final say on the fate of the Vogtle expansion. It is expected to make a decision by February.

But most on the five-member PSC board already have indicated they’re reluctant to pull the plug after more than $5 billion has been spent on Georgia Power’s portion of construction and financing.

In a statement, Georgia Power called forging ahead “the most economic choice for customers,” compared with abandoning the project or switching to a natural gas-fired power plant.

Critics of the Vogtle project quickly condemned Georgia Power’s recommendation.

“It is not a good deal for Georgia ratepayers,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group.

“I believe it is clearly uneconomic, and it is the (state utility regulator’s) responsibility to require the least-cost option,” said Coyle.

Critics have said Georgia Power and state regulators should also have looked at bigger investments in solar power and energy conservation programs.

Georgia Power and its parent firm, Southern Company, have been studying what to do with the troubled project since the late-March bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, which designed the reactors and had become lead contractor. Even before the bankruptcy, the project was over three years behind schedule and more than $3 billion over budget.

Georgia Power has been spending about $50 million a month keeping construction going since the bankruptcy.

The recommendation to go ahead was widely expected, even as other utility partnerships recently decided to halt two similar nuclear projects in South Carolina, citing the Westinghouse bankruptcy and other risks.

A month ago, SCANA and Santee Cooper decided to abandon the nearly identical V.C. Summer project in South Carolina because of rising costs of the $14 billion project, falling demand for electricity, construction delays and Westinghouse’s bankruptcy.

Duke Energy cited similar reasons last week for ditching a less-advanced nuclear project in South Carolina that also depended on Westinghouse’s reactor designs.

Georgia Power, which owns 45.7 percent share of the project, said the total capital cost of the project is now expected to be about $19 billion. That’s well above the original $14 billion estimate when it got the go-ahead in 2009. Construction was originally supposed to be completed this year.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the $19 billion includes financing costs — a substantial portion of the total project costs that have grown with each year of delay. Those costs are paid through surcharges that add about $100 a year to residential customers’ power bills.

While the PSC is considered likely to stick with the project, some commissioners have said they’re worried about the soaring costs and a shaky $3.7 billion financial guarantee from Westinghouse’s Tokyo-based parent firm, Toshiba, which also could plunge into bankruptcy.

Two weeks ago, PSC Commissioner Tim Echols said the reactors should be built to ensure Georgia utilities have “diversified” energy sources in case natural gas or other energy prices rise in the future.

“No matter what happens, nuclear reactors will ensure Georgia’s electric rates stay competitive,” he said in a recent opinion column in The Wall Street Journal.

Commissioners Stan Wise and H. Doug Everett recently said they’re confident Southern Company’s nuclear arm could oversee continued construction. And Lauren “Bubba” McDonald said he did “not like to see failure,” referring to the project.

Coyle said that with most of the PSC’s commission already indicating they don’t want to abandon the project, “the commission backed everyone into a corner.”

Including spending by its other partners, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and the city of Dalton, the Plant Vogtle project has cost an estimated $11 billion so far.

Plant Vogtle also has two older reactors finished in 1987 and 1989, following a construction program also marked by delays and cost increases.

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