Opinion: Ga. Power, Southern Co. have nuked a lot of credibility

It really is hard to believe.

Eight years after Georgia Power officials confidently assured us that they had this nuclear thing figured out, that two new units at Plant Vogtle could be brought in on budget and on time, leading a supposed renaissance in the U.S. nuclear industry, it’s all in danger of collapsing.

The projected cost of those units has almost doubled, to $25 billion and counting. Completion is still years away, and the prime contractor has gone bankrupt. Last month, construction of two similar units in South Carolina, facing similar cost overruns and delays, was abandoned after it became clear that the additional investment needed to complete the units could not be justified.

Now it’s Georgia’s turn.

Right from the start, experts had warned the Georgia Public Service Commission about the dangers inherent in restarting the American nuclear industry almost from scratch, using new and untested technology in a field in which the margin of error is tiny because the cost of failure is so huge. From the start, Georgia Power and its partners confidently and aggressively dismissed those warnings, basically steamrolling all opposition.

Yet even as it issued those assurances, Georgia Power also made sure that its own corporate interests would be protected in case its critics proved correct. Using its considerable influence at the PSC and in the Legislature, the utility rewrote state law and state policy to ensure that all of the financial risks inherent in such a venture would be placed on the backs of the ratepayers, and none on its own shareholders.

Then it began. As reports of delays and overruns began to filter out, the company would deny or downplay them. When those problems became too obvious to deny, the company often claimed that they had been anticipated all along. And time and again, when it issued new cost projections and completion dates, those estimates would prove wildly optimistic.

For example, under the original schedule, both new units at Vogtle should already be on line and producing power. Those estimates have been repeatedly pushed back to the point that in early 2015, the company was forced to admit that completion was still five years in the future.

Now that schedule has once again been pushed back, with completion still another four to six years away. Put another way, more than two years have passed and hundreds of millions if not billions have been spent, and by the company’s own admission we are no closer to those units producing power than we were in 2015.

Maybe that perpetually sliding timetable reflects a lack of corporate honesty. Maybe it’s a repeated failure by Georgia Power and its parent Southern Co. to fully grasp their undertaking. Probably, it’s a bit of both. Whatever the cause, that long record of inaccurate projections and timelines makes it impossible to build policy on any new projections that the company produces.

Yet later this month, Southern Co. officials will recommend whether to continue dumping billions of dollars into its nuclear expansion at Vogtle. If their recommendation is yes, they will be asking the ratepayers of Georgia to make an enormous multi-billion-dollar leap of faith, even after previous such leaps of faith have fallen short.

Well, this time, the ratepayers will require company in that leap. This time, the PSC must do its job of protecting the public by ensuring that if Vogtle moves forward, Southern Co. will share significantly in the financial risk of doing so.

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