Vogtle critics go to court over PSC approval

By Kristi E. Swartz – E&E News 

ATLANTA — The nation’s lone nuclear construction project was the center of a courtroom debate yesterday, not a regulatory one.

Critics of the Plant Vogtle construction project tried to convince a superior court judge that she needed to listen further to their arguments about the Georgia Public Service Commission’s procedural missteps last year when it agreed to let Georgia Power Co. finish the reactors.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the PSC and Georgia Power said the commission followed the rules and that environmental and consumer advocates should save their complaints for later, specifically when the reactors start producing electricity.

“The recommendation to move forward with the Vogtle project was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process. Georgia Power complied with all rules and laws throughout the proceeding and we strongly disagree with any claims to the contrary,” a utility spokesman said in a statement.

Vogtle was years behind schedule and billions of dollars above its original forecast budget when main contractor Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC went bankrupt in early 2017. Months later, Georgia Power and the PSC used a routine proceeding to weigh the project’s future but roped in many significant changes.

These included Georgia Power becoming the main contractor, a roughly $3 billion increase in the project’s budget and assurances that the utility would be able to recoup those amounts from customers in the future.

What’s more, the lengthy motion that the PSC approved in a late decision included topics that hadn’t been vetted during public hearings and were the result of a back-and-forth between at least one regulator and Georgia Power.

Consumer group Georgia Watch asked the commission to reconsider its decision and then took the five-member agency to court after that request failed. The Southern Environmental Law Center joined in, representing Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and the Partnership for Southern Equity.

“This wasn’t the right way to go about making a decision,” said Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney for SELC.

The groups also argue that some of the conversations between Georgia Power and the PSC essentially took place behind closed doors when that shouldn’t have happened. John Salter, an attorney representing Georgia Watch, ran through a short timeline that included an email from Commissioner Tim Echols to Georgia Power’s top regulatory affairs official regarding a motion on Vogtle and visits from Georgia Power in the building’s official logs.

He also referred to an email from Echols to Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers that said, “Paul, not to get ahead of ourselves, but when we cut the ribbon for Unit 3, I want to see the President of the United States holding the scissors, and you and me on each side of him. Deal?”

Georgia Watch and SELC have asked Judge Shawn LaGrua to let them further investigate.

“This is not supposed to happen,” Salter argued.

Attorneys for the PSC and for Georgia Power both argued that the PSC and the utility did not violate what’s known as an “ex parte” rule where private communications take place without other stakeholders knowing.

Thomas Reilly, representing Georgia Power, argued that the commission crafted the terms of that rule and that such insider communications “are permitted by everybody.”

Reilly also told LaGrua that the PSC’s review of Vogtle is ongoing and that those who want to challenge incremental decisions can do so when the two reactors start producing electricity. This will be the time that the PSC will start reviewing whether Georgia Power correctly spent the billions it did on Vogtle, a key step that clears the way to recouping all of that money from its customers.

“There are no assurances of cost recovery to Georgia Power,” Reilly said.

Georgia Watch has brought in a lawyer with significant name recognition and one who has already challenged Georgia Power and Plant Vogtle in court: former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D). Barnes’ law firm is representing customers who are challenging Georgia Power’s collection of sales taxes on top of a monthly financing fee for Vogtle.

Barnes briefly argued in the courtroom but spoke to reporters afterward.

“This was a standard cost report turned into an approval for expenditures,” he said. “The more [Georgia Power] spends, the more they make. I am surprised the PSC has approved [the project] this far.”

LaGrua did not give any indication on when she would decide on the motions, including the one to dismiss the case.

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Source: E&E News