By Tom Baxter
From a design point of view, the nuclear projects at Plant Vogtle and the V.C. Summer site in South Carolina were identical. They were to be the first in a new generation of U.S. nuclear reactors, the Westinghouse AP1000s, cheaper, easier to build and safer than their predecessors.
After years of costly delays, the fate of the two projects diverged last summer, when the South Carolina utilities funding the Summer project pulled the plug on it, just days after the Georgia Public Service gave the go-ahead for continuing construction at Vogtle, despite the bankruptcy of Westinghouse.
The impact of the Westinghouse debacle has been felt more sharply in South Carolina, where a substantially smaller population of ratepayers is shouldering the enormous costs. One result of this has been a very productive competition between Columbia’s The State and Charleston’s The Post and Courier, both of which have been aggressive in reporting on the regulatory failures that accompanied the engineering blunders on the road to ruin for the Summer project.
Last week, as the Georgia Public Service Commission was holding four days of hearings on the future of the Vogtle project, portable devices were buzzing with the fruits of that effort.
While proponents of the project were trying to make the economic case for staying the course with Vogtle, The Post and Courier was reporting how Westinghouse kited the costs of materials at the Summer project, using hand-machined nuts at $112 a piece when a similar nut was available for $2.
Meanwhile The State was reporting on how a troop of utility officials flew to Washington to celebrate the licensing of the Summer project and tried to pass the costs along to the ratepayers. It was enough to make an old reporter feel nostalgic.
Perhaps the most damning revelation since the plug was pulled on the South Carolina project was that officials of the utilities SCANA and Santee Cooper knew about a private audit by the construction company Bechtel identifying serious problems with the project before they told state regulators that it was on track.
The audit came to light over Labor Day when Gov. Henry McMaster ordered it released, over the objections of Santee Cooper’s board. McMaster has put the state-owned utility up for sale.
In a recent, very thorough examination of how one project survived while the other hung on, Post and Courier writer Tony Bartelme credits Georgia regulators, in particular construction monitor William Jacobs, with keeping a much closer watch on the snowballing missteps and inefficiencies troubling both projects.
In the end, however, Jacobs’ early and accurate warnings that the Vogtle project was dangerously off course didn’t turn it around, or convince the PSC to apply the brakes.
“Ultimately, Vogtle’s story shows how money and political power triumphed over incompetence, at least so far,” Bartelme wrote.
Georgia Public Service Commission Commissioner Stan Wise, an enthusiastic supporter of Vogtle from the beginning, said in the story that there were big financial differences in the Vogtle and Summer projects, and that it would be better for Georgia if Vogtle goes forward.
“In South Carolina you have a finger-pointing campaign about who knew what and when and who’s going to pay for it all. No good comes out of any of those scenarios,” Wise told The Post and Courier.
No good, that is, if you’re looking at things from the perspective of a commissioner who’s about to leave office after rubber-stamping a project that is years off schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
But who knew what and when and who’s going to pay for it all are questions that are just as relevant in Georgia as they are in South Carolina. And sooner or later they’re going to be asked.