Opinion: Dear Georgia Power: The answer is no

More than a decade ago, our good friends at Georgia Power proposed to build two new nuclear reactors — the first on U.S. soil in a generation — at its Vogtle site outside Augusta.

Georgia Power recruited the partners it needed from electric co-ops and city utilities around the state. It lobbied its obedient servants at the state Public Service Commission to rubber-stamp the project, which they did by a 4-1 vote. (All four “yes” men are still on the PSC today, still collecting their six-figure salaries, their durability testament to the wisdom of not crossing Georgia Power.)

The company also hired the most powerful lobbyists in the state, then strong-armed a law through the Legislature that forced consumers to start paying for the nuke projects immediately, long before they produced any power. It chose the design; it hired the contractors. It also assured everyone that the problems that had long dogged nuclear power — the safety concerns, the massive cost-overruns and construction delays — had been resolved, and that the units would be up and producing power by 2017 just as scheduled.

The message from the company was steadfast: “Don’t worry, we got this.”

They didn’t. They were wrong, spectacularly wrong, and their critics have been proved right. Under the original schedule, both new nuclear units should have been producing power by now. Instead, they are less than half built. The cost overruns have been enormous, basically doubling in cost even if nothing further goes wrong. And what is the price to be paid for such failure?

For Georgia Power, the price is none. No price, and to hear Georgia Power tell it, no failure. In a meeting last week with journalists from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers was asked whether the company deserved any blame for this financial catastrophe.

“The answer to that question is no,” Bowers said.

No? The answer to that question is no?

As long as they maintain that absurd position, Bowers and other Georgia Power officials understand that their company and its shareholders will pay no financial penalty for its role in botching this project. You and I will pay — have been paying already — through our power bills. The company that employs you will pay, the businesses where you shop will pay — we’ll all be paying billions of dollars. Not Georgia Power.

Because as Bowers says, they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re not responsible. Things just … happened.

The same four PSC commissioners who approved the Vogtle expansion back in 2009, the people whom we elect and pay to put the “regulated” in “regulated utility,” are now sitting in judgment not just of Georgia Power, but of their own complicity in this. They can choose to press ahead, committing several billion dollars more of your money to prove that they were right back in 2009; they can also choose to abandon the project and by doing so admit their own error.

Guess which way they’re leaning?

Once again we hear the assurances: The cost estimates are solid; the construction schedule will be met. Don’t worry, they’ve got this. But is Georgia Power so confident that it is willing to put its own shareholder money at risk if these new assurances prove no more valid than those it offered almost a decade ago?

To borrow a phrase from the company’s CEO, the answer to that question is no.

So should the PSC commit ratepayers to that deal, knowing the track record, without requiring any skin in the game from Georgia Power?

“The answer to that question is no.”

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