By Lyle V. Harris
It’s official: those responsible for the epic, multi-billion dollar construction failure unfolding at the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant are starting to experience the Five Stages of Grief. Granted, the onset of their denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance has been delayed and disordered. But trust me, the grieving process is well underway and the rest of us may soon be joining them.
You’d be forgiven if you were clueless about Plant Vogtle; our local media outlets are still mostly pretending this major story just doesn’t exist. My former colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – Matt Kempner and Russell Grantham – are thankfully among a handful of Georgia journalists who are paying attention and doing a bang-up job following this mess. Gentlemen, please keep up the good work.
For those keeping score at home, this textbook example of corporate cronyism dates back to 2009 when the Georgia General Assembly passed a law (yes, a law) granting Georgia Power the authority to charge customers in advance to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, an existing nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, about 25 miles from Augusta.
Unlike other such projects, this sweetheart deal granted Georgia Power, a Southern Company subsidiary, the authority to begin collecting a surcharge from customers long before the nuclear units were completed or were generating electricity. By doing so, the company claimed, electricity customers would save millions in long-term financing costs.
Georgia Power is the majority owner of the Vogtle nuclear expansion with a roughly 45 percent stake. Their project partners include Oglethorpe Power and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, a co-op owned by small, community based electric membership corporations across the state.
The new reactors were originally projected to cost about $14 billion and were supposed to be up and running this year. Instead, the latest estimates suggest that the project won’t be completed until 2023 and will cost a staggering $25 billion. So far, the upfront surcharges – about $100-per-year on a typical household bill – have already cost rate-paying customers about $2 billion, with a “b.”
As I’ve stated before, the Vogtle project was doomed from the git-go, an outcome that wasn’t difficult to foresee. One of the biggest factors was – and remains – the spineless leadership at the five-member Georgia Public Service Commission which has repeatedly failed to protect consumers’ interests when it comes to their slavish patronage of Georgia Power/Southern Company. It didn’t help, of course, that Commissioners repeatedly ignored the warnings of their own staff and independent monitors.
Making matters immeasurably worse, Westinghouse Electric, which was building the new reactors, went bankrupt in March, throwing the fate of the Vogtle project even further into question. Toshiba, Westinghouse’s parent company, has since agreed to honor $3.8 billion in loan guarantees to complete the Vogtle project, but even that promise appears increasingly suspect, according to my colleague, David Pendered.
And that’s where denial, the first and most pathetic stage of grief, comes in.
Although the Vogtle project hasn’t officially been declared dead, the prognosis is looking dimmer by the day. Last week, the owners of Vogtle’s “sister” project – V.C. Summer, a similar nuke expansion also being built by Westinghouse in South Carolina – decided to shut down construction permanently. The reason: Prolonged delays and projected cost overruns that would swell the total price tag to $25 billion. Sound familiar?
Faced with the increasing prospect that the Vogtle project is no longer viable, Southern Company is trying really hard to avoid the obvious parallels between the two projects. Thomas Fanning, President and CEO of Southern Company, also holds the dubious title of Denier-in-Chief.
“There are a host of differences between our project and the Summer project,” Fanning told the AJC. Even though the projects share the same reactors, suppliers, and challenges.
Then there was this epiphany from Stan Wise, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, who continues his delusional, whistling-past-the-graveyard approach:
“The dissimilarities of these projects should be recognized before making any suppositions on whether construction will continue at Plant Vogtle based on decisions made in South Carolina,” Wise said in a statement comparing the two projects while also suggesting they have little in common.
The biggest difference? Georgia Power has a much larger base of helpless customers to help shoulder the burden of their costly misadventure than its counterparts in South Carolina.
Wise said he’ll be asking Georgia Power for a decision by the end of this year on whether they plan to proceed with the Plant Vogtle expansion project, or scrap it completely which would cost an estimated $400 million.
Bear in mind this is a lose-lose proposition. While abandoning the Plant Vogtle expansion will cost us dearly, completing it will also be pointless and hellishly more expensive to complete since recent projections of electricity demand in Georgia indicate that we don’t really need new reactors, after all.
Either way, Georgia Power’s customers should be more than ready to move onto the next stage of grief: Anger.