Groups go to court to fight Public Service Commission’s approval of Plant Vogtle cost increases

By Mary Landers – Savannah Morning News

Two groups are challenging the Georgia Public Service Commission’s recent decision to approve billions of dollars in cost overruns for the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed an appeal on behalf of the Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light earlier this week in Fulton County Superior Court, charging that the approval violates state law and the commission’s own rules, and that it favors Georgia Power shareholders over its customers.

“The commissioners rushed a decision concerning the single most expensive capital project in state history, giving Georgia Power everything it asked for and sticking customers with all the risk,” said Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Unless corrected, this error will have grave implications for decades to come. It rewards failure.”

Originally certified as a $6.1 billion project for majority owner Georgia Power, costs have ballooned as the construction of the power plant’s third and fourth reactors has been delayed. In December the PSC bumped that approval up to $10.7 billion, a 75 percent increase. Residential ratepayers already pay about $100 a year in a nuclear pre-construction fee. The delay and increased cost are expected to result in $5 billion of additional profit for Georgia Power.

Ebersbach and his colleagues argue the panel should have examined such large changes to the project under an “amended certificate proceeding,” which would allow for a more thorough review. Instead, it used the already scheduled six-month monitoring review and with little notice in December truncated even that process by 47 days. Over objections from environmental and consumer groups that the PSC was short-circuiting its regulatory process, the panel also declared the future spending “reasonable.”

“By rubber-stamping reasonableness now, the commission has made it impossible for petitioners to challenge the reasonableness of the revised project cost in any future proceeding, including the prudency review set to take place following the project’s completion,” SELC attorneys wrote in their appeal.

Now the only new nuclear under construction in the U.S., the beleaguered Vogtle project suffered the bankruptcy last spring of its main contractor, Westinghouse. A parallel project in South Carolina, also touted as part of a now-defunct nuclear renaissance, was abandoned mid-construction in August and lawmakers there are still sorting out who will pay. A Chinese project that uses the same reactor, the AP1000, is also years behind schedule, with Reuters reporting earlier this week that the plant’s fuel loading was delayed due to “safety concerns.”

Also at issue in the appeal are the commission’s closed door communications with Georgia Power. After deciding to shorten the proceedings, the PSC waived its rule that prohibits staff from communicating privately with any parties after all the evidence has been presented. SELC and other intervenors objected then and now saying the private communication with Georgia Power just days ahead of the controversial December vote violated the law because they were not allowed to respond to the “substance of the communications.”

The PSC’s decision also approved continuing the project but failed to provide the legally required findings supporting that decision, the petition states.

“While Georgia Power continues to profit off of these project delays, its customers — including many faith communities — will spend more money on their electric bills for the next few decades than they would have otherwise because nuclear power costs more to build than any other power source,” said Rev. Kate McGregor Mosley, Executive Director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, a not-for-profit organization representing more than 300 member congregations and headquartered in Decatur. “By locking up billions of dollars for decades, the Commission’s decision means there will be far fewer resources to invest in cleaner, affordable renewable energy and energy efficiency in Georgia.”

The PSC is a five-person regulatory panel elected statewide. Commissioners Tim Echols, Chuck Eaton and Doug Everett declined comment Wednesday, citing pending litigation. Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald also declined, saying he was unprepared to do so.

“I’m aware of the filing but have been at a conference in D.C. so I do not have a comment at this time,” he wrote.

The appeal comes after the PSC earlier this month rejected a petition filed by consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch to reconsider its Vogtle decision. Executive Director Liz Coyle said Georgia Watch has until March 1 to file its own legal appeal and hasn’t yet decided if it will do so. Two bills in the state senate seek to limit the money paid by ratepayers – particularly schools – for Vogtle’s expansion.

Through spokesman John Kraft, Georgia Power said “the decision by the Georgia PSC to continue the Vogtle project was well within its authority and complied with all applicable laws.”

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Source: Savannah Morning News