Georgia nuclear plant can start loading fuel into second new reactor, feds say

Unit 3’s reactor and cooling tower stand at Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant on Jan. 20, 2023, in Waynesboro, Ga. Company officials announced Wednesday, May 24, 2023, that Unit 3, one of two new reactors at the site, would reach full power in coming days, after years of delays and billions in cost overruns. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Federal regulators have approved plans to load radioactive fuel into a second new nuclear reactor in Georgia.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Friday that Georgia Power Co. and its co-owners can begin loading fuel into unit 4 at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta.

It’s a key step toward completing the two-reactor project, which is seven years late and $17 billion over budget.

Georgia Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. has said it anticipates loading fuel in the last three months of 2023.

The milestone comes as a Monday deadline nears for unit 3 to reach commercial operation. The current deadline to reliably send electricity to the grid came after a leaking turbine seal forced another month’s wait. The reactor was producing power at 98% of capacity on Friday, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.

Two older reactors are also operating at Plant Vogtle.

Georgia Power said Friday that it’s making final preparations to load the 157 fuel assemblies into the reactor core. All of the fuel has already been inspected and is being stored at the site.

Once fuel is loaded, operators will conduct tests and begin splitting atoms, which creates the high temperatures that boil steam that drives turbines, which generates electricity. The company says unit 4 is supposed to reach commercial operation by March 2024.

In Georgia, almost every electric customer will pay for Vogtle. Georgia Power currently owns 45.7% of the reactors. Smaller shares are owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., which provides electricity to member-owned cooperatives, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. Some Florida and Alabama utilities have also contracted to buy Vogtle’s power.

Currently, the owners are projected to pay $31 billion in capital and financing costs, Associated Press calculations show. Add in 3.7 billion that Westinghouse paid to the Vogtle owners to walk away from building the reactors and the total nears $35 billion.

Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers are already paying part of the financing cost and state regulators have approved a monthly rate increase of at least $3.78 a month as soon as the third unit reaches commercial operation.

But the elected five-member Public Service Commission will decide later who pays for the remainder of the costs. Deciding whether Georgia Power’s spending decisions were prudent is supposed to begin once fuel is loaded into the fourth reactor. That process will determine how much the company’s customers will pay for Vogtle, as opposed to whether shareholders will have to absorb additional losses. Southern Co. has written off $3.26 billion in Vogtle losses since 2018, suggesting it won’t recoup those costs.

Commissioners earlier said they would presume $5.7 billion of Georgia’s Power’s spending as prudent. The company is now projected to spend more than $10.5 billion on construction and $3.5 billion on financing.

The two new units combined are projected to produce enough power for more than 500,000 homes and businesses.

Vogtle is the only nuclear plant under construction in the United States. Its costs and delays could deter other utilities from building such plants, even though they generate electricity without releasing climate-changing carbon emissions.