In a decision that could help shape the future of American nuclear power, Georgia regulators on Thursday said a troubled $25 billion reactor project that’s over budget and years behind schedule can continue — though state electricity customers will have to foot less of the bill moving forward.
The unanimous vote of the five-member Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) will have reverberations across the nation and the energy sector; if the panel had stopped the expansion of the Plant Vogtle facility, it would have cast serious doubt on whether it’s commercially feasible to build a new nuclear reactor in the U.S.
The two new reactors at the Vogtle site, located just south of Augusta, would be the first such new facilities put into operation nationwide since 1978.
“Today’s decision may or may not be the most important decision ever made by this body,” said PSC Chairman Stan Wise before the vote.
The decision surely will come as welcome news to the Trump administration, which has been trumpeting nuclear power as part of its all-of-the-above energy strategy. The Energy Department in September offered a conditional $3.7 billion loan guarantee to the project, hoping the money would provide a lifeline and keep the entire proposal from falling apart.
But even that loan guarantee wasn’t enough to get Vogtle across the finish line.
The project has been plagued by massive cost overruns, having initially been estimated to cost just $14 billion. Construction delays have been partly attributable to the fact that the main contractor, Westinghouse Electric Company, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, adding another layer of uncertainty to the project.
State regulators also had come under fire because consumers in Georgia were on the hook for much of the cost of completing the project. Had the new reactors been canceled, ratepayers would have essentially lost many millions of dollars in fees tacked on to their monthly bills for a project that was never completed.
To mitigate problems moving forward, the state Public Service Commission cut down the amount of profit Georgia Power, an Atlanta-based electric utility which oversees the project, can make off of the facilities.
In a statement, the utility said about $1.7 billion will now be taken off of taxpayers’ tab, and that any money they pay will be recouped in the long run.
“Our responsibility is to our customers first and we remain focused on fulfilling our commitment to them to deliver a new energy source that will put downward pressure on rates for 60 to 80 years once the new units are online,” said Georgia Power President Paul Bowers.
State regulators said the fact that ratepayers will kick in less money, coupled with the fact that cost estimates will continue to rise as time goes on, should provide motivation to Georgia Power and its contractors to move quickly.
“This should also serve as a powerful incentive to work as fast and safely as possible to finish the units,” said Commissioner Tim Echols.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal also praised the move, saying it’ll have a positive impact on the state.
“Investing in clean, sustainable energy infrastructure is a worthwhile endeavor that will have a positive economic impact as well,” he said in a statement.
The project “will provide affordable energy to Georgians for more than 60 years while creating 6,000 jobs during project construction and 800 well-paying, permanent ones after. It is important that we stay the course,” he continued.
Vogtle is one of only two new nuclear-power projects in the entire country. The other, the V.C. Summer project in South Carolina, has run into its own cost overruns and delays, along with a state investigation into the fact that taxpayers have spent billions of dollars and so far have nothing to show for it.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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