Kemp calls for more nuclear as Vogtle project ends

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp snap a selfie in front of the new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga. (Emily Jones/WABE and Grist)

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between WABE and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

Gov. Brian Kemp called for another expansion of nuclear Plant Vogtle during an event Wednesday celebrating the completion of two new reactors at the east Georgia facility. The construction of those reactors, known as Vogtle Units Three and Four, cost more than twice its original budget and ended years behind schedule.

“Today, we celebrate the end of that project,” Kemp told the crowd of state officials and Southern Company executives. “And now, let’s start planning for Vogtle Five.”

That could be a tough sell to Georgians, who have seen their bills go up multiple times to pay for the new reactors, and to Southern Company shareholders, who have had to absorb some of the costs. Originally billed as the dawn of a new nuclear era and priced at $14 billion, the Plant Vogtle project was plagued by repeated delays and ultimately cost an estimated total of more than $31 billion. 

When lead contractor Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in 2017, prompting South Carolina to abandon its own nuclear project, Vogtle became the only new nuclear construction in the country. It still is. 

“If building more nuclear were a good idea, other states would be jumping on the bandwagon now,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch. “The fact that they’re not, I think, speaks volumes.”

Coyle said her group is preparing to fight any proposal for another reactor. 

For their part, the elected officials and utility executives at Wednesday’s event spoke of Plant Vogtle as a success story.

A sheet cake model of the new Plant Vogtle nuclear reactors, served to state and utility leaders at an event celebrating the completion of the project (Emily Jones/WABE and Grist)

“Vogtle three and four don’t just represent an incredible economic development asset for our state and…a milestone for our entire country,” Kemp said. “They also stand as physical examples of something that I remind myself of every day: tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

Triumphal arrangements of the national anthem, “God Bless America” and “Georgia On My Mind” backed by a gospel choir bookended the celebratory speeches. Attendees could snack on a sheet cake model of the power plant rendered in fondant.

Speakers touted Plant Vogtle as a win for clean energy, since it can produce enough electricity to power a million homes and businesses without the greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal or gas, according to Georgia Power. That carbon-free energy is key to attracting new businesses to the state, Kemp and others said.

All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission addressed the crowd. 

“I just hope that we keep it up. We really should,” said commissioner Tricia Pridemore. “If we want to continue clean energy for our nation, it’s gonna take more than four.”  

In December, the PSC approved a deal that hikes Georgia Power customers’ rates now that Vogtle Unit Four is online.

After the Wednesday event, commissioner Tim Echols said he supports more nuclear power in Georgia, but said a further Vogtle expansion would need to come with protections against runaway costs and other problems that plagued the last project.

“I really need some protection against a bankruptcy,” he said. “I just can’t do it on the same basis again.”

Echols suggested a federal “backstop” and a mechanism to ensure large customers like factories and data centers would pay for the bulk of nuclear construction.

Under current Georgia law, a further expansion of Plant Vogtle would need to be financed differently than the project that just wrapped up, Coyle said. In 2018, state lawmakers approved a sunset provision for the state law that had allowed Georgia Power to pass Vogtle’s financing costs on to customers during construction. Barring another change, that would mean Southern Company and its shareholders would shoulder those costs. 

Coyle said she’ll be urging lawmakers to keep it that way.

“Georgians are struggling, really, really struggling already to pay their power bills,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to go down this path again.”

On Friday,  U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and national climate advisor Ali Zaidi are visiting Vogtle for another event at the power plant. According to the Department of Energy, they plan to meet with local officials, as well as industry and labor leaders.