First new Vogtle nuclear reactor enters operation, making history

First new Vogtle nuclear reactor enters operation, making history

By Drew Kann, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WAYNESBORO — The first of the two new units at Plant Vogtle, in east Georgia, has officially entered commercial service, Georgia Power announced Monday, making history as the first nuclear reactor built from scratch in the U.S. in more than three decades.

The reactor, Unit 3, is expected to produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity at full tilt, enough to power roughly 500,000 homes and businesses. Georgia Power has said the unit and its twin, Unit 4 — which is expected to be finished by the end of the first quarter of 2024 — will be in service for the next 60 to 80 years.

The two reactors south of Augusta were pitched as part of a nuclear revival that would usher in vast amounts of carbon-free electricity. But both units will finish years behind schedule and billions over initial cost estimates.

Still, completion of Unit 3 is a major step for the country’s nuclear industry, which federal officials say must be revived for the U.S. to achieve its climate goals and reclaim energy independence. And though work continues to bring Unit 4 across the finish line, it marks the beginning of the end of a tumultuous quest to bring the reactors online.

During a ceremony Monday on a hill overlooking the site, with thick fog obscuring the cooling towersGeorgia Power president and CEO Kim Greene called the milestone a “culmination of years of hard work and sacrifices by many.”

“Along the way, we faced unprecedented challenges, skepticism, even doubt,” she said. “But we stayed the course.”

Mike Smith, the president and CEO of Oglethorpe Power, which owns the second-largest share of the two new units, said in a statement that Unit 3′s completion “is a testament to the important investments we’re making that drive us toward a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.” Once Unit 4 is finished, Smith said Oglethorpe — a power supply cooperative whose members serve 4.4 million Georgians — will source more than half of the electricity it provides from nuclear power.

Unit 3 came online Monday more than seven years after it was initially expected to enter service. Unit 4, meanwhile, is more than six years behind schedule.

The delays have pushed the total price tag for the whole project above $35 billion, more than double what the company initially forecast — and still growing. Critics have blamed Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company, for the rising costs, which they say Vogtle owners and shareholders should pay for, not customers.

“Every time they’ve pushed the schedule back — three months, six months, years — that’s added hundreds of millions to billions of dollars,” said Liz Coyle, the executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer watchdog group. “I think those delays tied to how the company has managed the project should absolutely be subject to being disallowed from recovery from ratepayers.”

In 2017, cost overruns at Vogtle and two similar units in South Carolina pushed the main contractor on both projects, Westinghouse, into bankruptcy. Later that year, Georgia state regulators voted to continue the Vogtle project, while South Carolina pulled the plug on both of its reactors.

Georgia Power ratepayers have already been paying for the two units in their monthly bills for years.

The electric customers of dozens of cooperatives and municipalities across the state will also pay for the units in varying amounts. Georgia Power currently holds the largest ownership stake with 45.7%, followed by Oglethorpe Power (30%), MEAG(22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).

Chairman Tricia Pridemore, who has led state oversight of the project at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) for the last two years, said in an interview last month that the units are worth the cost.She added that they’ll provide a reliable source of electricity that is insulated from the wild costswings of other fuels, like gas and coal.

“I think that the long-term benefits of this project probably will not even be realized in my lifetime,” Pridemore said.

As global temperatures rise, Vogtle’s electrons will also be generated without contributing greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists say the power sector and the rest of the global economy must transition away from burning fossil fuels rapidly, to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

To do that, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says the country needs to expand its nuclear fleet. The agency supported the Vogtle project with $12 billion in guaranteed loans.

“We think that nuclear is really important,” DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a town hall in June in Atlanta. “It’s one of the reasons the Biden administration has spent money to keep the existing nuclear fleet online, as well as incentivize the building of new nuclear.”

But it’s unclear whether Unit 3′s completion will actually usher in an American nuclear renaissance.

The new Vogtle units both use a large, advanced reactor design developed by Westinghouse called the AP1000. Several of the models have been built in China, but the Vogtle reactors are the first built on the platform in the U.S.

The federal government is pumping money into the research and development of new reactor models, including smaller units and others that use different fuels. While utilities in Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming have laid initial plans to build new reactors, there is currentlynot a single signed order for another new commercial nuclear unit in the U.S.

The ultimate size of the bill facing Georgia ratepayers for Vogtle, meanwhile, is likely to come into focus in the coming months.

Expert witnesses for the PSC’s staff recently estimated that by the time Unit 4 enters service, the average Georgia Power customer will have paid about $926 in their monthly bills for Vogtle construction. If the project had been completed on schedule, customers would have paid half that amount.

Now that Unit 3 is complete, they’ll begin paying even more soon. Georgia Power estimates the average customer will see their monthly bills jump by $3.78. Witnesses for the PSC’s staff, however, estimate the monthly increase will be closer to $5.40.

There will be additional rate hikes to pay for the reactors, too.

PSC staff experts have testified that if state regulators allow the company to collect $7.7 billion in Vogtle costs through rates, it could lead to a monthly bill increase for residential customers of $14.10 per month on average for the first five years after the units are in service. The monthly increase would drop slightly to $13.20 for the next five years. Those figures include the rate bump that is already set to kick in now that Unit 3 is in operation.

The exact amounts of the future increases will be determined by the PSC through a series “prudency review” hearings, which are set to start after fuel is loaded into Unit 4.

That process could begin soon: Last week, Georgia Power announced that it had received clearance from federal regulators to begin placing fuel rods in Unit 4′s reactor, though it has not yet done so.

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