Environment

With Utility Votes Looming, Ga. Lawmakers Express Concern About Vogtle

Two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, which is near Augusta, were supposed to be up and running by now. However, construction has fallen years behind schedule and has increased by billions of dollars.
Two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, which is near Augusta, were supposed to be up and running by now. However, construction has fallen years behind schedule and has increased by billions of dollars.
Credit John Bazemore / Associated Press file
'Add to My List' icon 'Added to My List' icon Add to My List In My List

Twenty Georgia legislators say they’re worried about the rising costs of the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion. That’s as a couple of important votes are coming up for the only nuclear power construction project in the nation.

The two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, which is near Augusta, were supposed to be up and running by now, but construction has fallen years behind schedule and has increased by billions of dollars. Last month, Georgia Power, which is the biggest owner of the project, announced that the price had gone up again, by $2.3 billion.

That announcement triggers votes by other owners of the Vogtle expansion, Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Oglethorpe Power Corp., because while Georgia Power says it will pass the additional costs on to its shareholders rather than its customers, the other utilities don’t have shareholders to absorb the increase, so their customers would have to take it on. Those votes will happen by next week.

On Wednesday, a group of Georgia lawmakers sent a letter to the power companies, expressing concern.

“Our local utilities don’t have the luxury of shareholders to absorb these additional costs and will have to increase rates even higher,” they wrote. “This approach is unfair and anti-competitive.”

The legislators asked MEAG and Oglethorpe not to vote to move forward with the project unless a cap is put on its costs.

“Quite frankly, I just don’t see the economics being there for this,” said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler. “I’m certainly supportive of nuclear power when it makes economic sense. It just doesn’t seem to be making sense in this particular situation.”

In an email, a Georgia Power spokesperson said all the Vogtle owners entered a contract a year ago to go forward “and everyone acknowledged and accepted all possible risks. Georgia Power has voted to move forward, and we hope the co-owners will also vote in favor to fulfill their obligation.”

Jim Galloway, political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called this “unprecedented,” politically.

“But of course the whole situation is unprecedented,” he said. “I mean, Vogtle is the only nuclear construction project in the U.S. right now. The financing was a first for Georgia.”

Nearly 10 years ago, the Georgia legislature voted to allow Georgia Power to charge ratepayers in advance for the cost of expanding Vogtle.

Some of those same lawmakers sent a new signal to the owners of the plant with the letter.

“This is the cream of the legislature making a protest,” Galloway said.

Why?

Politics could be one reason, especially considering most of the signers are Republicans, Galloway said.

“This letter came out 40-some odd days before the November 6 election and some of these legislators here do have opposition,” he said. “It’s a concern.”

Gov. Nathan Deal wrote his own letter to Georgia Power this week too, pledging full support for finishing Vogtle. But Deal isn’t on the ballot in November.

Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear took over construction for the Vogtle expansion last year, after the lead contractor for the project, Westinghouse, went bankrupt.

Georgia Power is regulated by the state Public Service Commission, which oversees its spending and timeline on Vogtle, but any decisions about the prudency of any costs won’t be made until the reactors are complete. Georgia Power’s customers are paying for the financing of the project now, on their monthly utility bills.

WABE reporter Emma Hurt contributed to this report.