- Associated Press - Friday, April 29, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Dominion Virginia Power is defending its heavy spending on a potential new nuclear power plant, one the company may not actually build and could cost more than $19 billion to complete.

The state’s largest electric utility said in new filings with Virginia regulators Friday that the option of building a third unit at its North Anna site “is of great value” for customers because of the uncertain future of federal carbon emission rules. But the company also said that same uncertainty was causing it to slow down spending on the project in the short term and push back a possible completion date by a year, to 2029.

Advocates of nuclear power point to the fact that it can provide consistent power, unlike solar or wind, that is also carbon free, unlike natural gas or coal.

“As we are transiting into a low carbon future, North Anna will be an on option that is very valuable to us at some point in the future,” said Bob Thomas, director of energy market analysis for Dominion.

But critics argue the costs of nuclear power are just too high and there are much cheaper alternatives.

Dominion says it plans to have spent at least $647 million planning to build the potential new nuclear unit, known as North Anna 3, by the time it gets a federal operating permit next year. That figure does not include financing and could be significantly higher by the time the company decides whether to build a new nuclear unit.

Dominion said it will make a decision about building the project after “this period of added uncertainty” regarding President Barack Obama’s carbon-emission rules “winds down.”

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to halt enforcement of Obama’s Clean Power Plan until after legal challenges are resolved.

An expert hired by Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said last year that the final cost of the plant would be more than $19 billion and would increase residential rates by more than 25 percent. Environmentalists have said Dominion should peruse more renewable energy projects instead of a new nuclear unit.

“That loud sucking sound is Dominion vacuuming money from its customers’ pockets for a $19 billion dollar boondoggle,” said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission’s three commissioners would have to give approval for Dominion to build North Anna 3. If approved, the company would be guaranteed a profit on all reasonable and prudent construction costs.

The commissioners haven’t signaled either way how they would vote on the project, but state lawmakers and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have previously given a strong vote of confidence in a potential new North Anna unit.

McAuliffe signed a bill in 2014 over the objections of some of Dominion’s heavy industrial customers that allowed the company to write off more than $300 million it had spent already on North Anna 3 preparation. Dominion’s Virginia customers would have received refunds totaling $188 million last year if not for that legislation, according to the attorney general’s office.

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