17 for ’17: The Future Of Nuclear Power In Georgia

After big shifts in the energy industry and a major bankruptcy, there’s only one nuclear power construction project in the nation. It’s at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle.

John Bazemore / Associated Press

WABE News is looking back at the top 17 news stories of 2017.

There was going to be a nuclear renaissance in the United States, or at least, supporters of nuclear power about a decade ago hoped there would be.

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Nuclear boosters say it’s important for U.S. leadership for nuclear to be built here, and for national security. It’s reliable. And supporters point out that once nuclear reactors are up and running, they don’t produce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

It’s also very expensive to build.

After big shifts in the energy industry – fracking made natural gas much cheaper — and a major bankruptcy, there’s only one nuclear power construction project in the nation. It’s at Plant Vogtle, near Augusta.

And the fate of the Vogtle expansion was up in the air for much of 2017.

In March, Westinghouse, the lead contractor building the two new nuclear reactors at Vogtle, went bankrupt. Soon after, utilities in South Carolina decided to stop work on their nuclear expansion at Summer Nuclear Generating Station, which was also being built by Westinghouse.

Summer was the only other active project in the U.S., and with the expansion there canceled, the future of the U.S. nuclear industry rested on Vogtle.

Georgia Power, which owns a little more than 45 percent of Vogtle, said following the Westinghouse bankruptcy, it would review costs and schedules and propose whether to continue construction or not. It called it the “go or no-go” decision.

The result of the analysis? The company said there would be a five-year delay – the new units were supposed to be up and running by now and are now expected to be complete in 2022 – and billions of dollars of added costs. Georgia Power hasn’t released a total final price tag, which would include the costs to the co-owners, plus financing, but it appears to have nearly doubled, to more than $22 billion.

Still, Georgia Power said it made more sense to continue than to cancel.

Staff at the Georgia Public Service Commission said that the project no longer made economic sense for Georgia Power customers at the price Georgia Power was projecting. The PSC regulates Georgia Power.

The five PSC commissioners acknowledged the recommendation of their own staff but decided last week to keep the project alive, going with the cost that Georgia Power put forward. They did add some conditions meant to cut into Georgia Power’s profits.

Commissioner Tim Echols said he thought Vogtle was still worth it, even as Georgia Power customers pay more to cover the financing, profit and – eventually – capital costs.

“This plant will not break even,” he said.

Opponents of the project say it should have been canceled, citing the PSC staff’s recommendation and arguing that the power Vogtle will eventually produce isn’t needed.

Still, PSC Chairman Stan Wise said he would not have allowed construction at Vogtle to stop.

“I never had any intention of having a vote … other than one that would be, ‘Yes, we agree to go forward, but these are the terms and conditions that we would operate under, and that the company and their co-owners would operate under,’” he said.