By Maggie Lee
The two nuclear reactors under construction below Augusta were supposed to be powering homes and businesses across most of Georgia by now, but they’re not. A group of Republican state legislators are now among those grumbling publicly about budget-busting costs as the Plant Vogtle expansion drags toward completion.
On Wednesday, twenty state senators and representatives sent a letter to the leaders of the main owners of Vogtle: Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.
They want Oglethorpe and MEAG to insist, as part of votes on the overall project, that regular folks not pay too much of the bill.
“Please ensure prior to voting in support of moving forward as required by the amended Co-Owners agreement, that a cost cap is established that protects all Georgia electric ratepayers from this and future overruns,” it reads in part.
Signers include the No. 2 leaders in both the state House and state Senate: House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, and Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.
That “agreement” the letter refers to is a vote on whether to continue Vogtle. (On Monday, MEAG’s board voted to continue with construction. Oglethorpe, also on Monday, announced via a statement that it would support Vogtle on condition that some cost-control option is implemented.)
Georgia Power, just after the legislators’ letter came out, responded.
“A year ago, Georgia Power and all of the Vogtle co-owners entered a new contract to move forward with the project, and everyone acknowledged and accepted all possible risks,” said a Georgia Power spokesperson in a written statement. “Georgia Power has voted to move forward, and we hope the co-owners will also vote in favor to fulfill their obligation,” it continued.
Vogtle’s cost is now estimated at something around $27 billion, getting near double estimates of about a decade ago.
But with their letter, those Georgia legislators have put a toe in the a diverse pool of folks who have been criticizing Vogtle, sometimes for years. That pool includes environmentalists and consumer advocates. It also includes Jacksonville, Florida’s utility, JEA, which is trying to get out of a deal to buy Vogtle power, which they think is now going to cost them much more than they signed on to pay.
Yet, the state Legislature in Georgia has in recent years been fairly quiet about Vogtle, with little to say about the oversight of the project. That’s the day-to-day job of Georgia’s Public Service Commission.
But it is the Legislature that voted in 2009 to approve a very controversial plan that let Georgia Power charge customers for Vogtle financing costs before the units came online.
At the time, as now, Georgia Power and partners billed Vogtle as the vanguard of an American nuclear renaissance, as Vogtle 3 and 4 would be the first new nukes to be built in the U.S. in decades; and with new technology worth decades of dependable, zero-carbon electricity.
But there’s a flip side to being the first at something: there are no one else’s mistakes to learn from and not legions of contractors ready to bid to manufacture or construct what’s required. The project got a big setback when a key contractor went bankrupt last year.
South Carolina utilities gave up building a pair of new nukes in 2017, which weren’t nearly as far along as Vogtle. The fight there over who will pay for the abandoned reactors in South Carolina is unfinished.
But any political will for killing Vogtle is very hard to come by. There are two seats on the Public Service Commission up for election this year, and neither Republican nor Democrat candidates are calling to abandon it.
So who’s to pay for Vogtle cost overruns? In that letter, lawmakers are trying to say “not it” on behalf of their voters.
One of the answers is people who own shares in Georgia Power’s parent Southern Company; that’s already been announced.
But EMCs and city utility companies don’t have shareholders.
“This puts a disproportionate cost burden on EMC and city utility customers,” reads the legislators’ letter. “Our local utilities don’t have the luxury of shareholders to absorb these additional costs and will have to increase rates even higher. This approach is unfair and anti-competitive.”
One of the PSC candidates, Democrat Dawn Randolph, said in a written statement on Friday that “relying on Georgia Power to place a cap on the project is ludicrous – it’s like taking Cookie Monster to the Keebler Elves Factory and telling him not to eat anything.”
She said that if she’s elected and the project is still underway at the time, she’d work with the Legislature to put a cap on the Vogtle costs and to claw back some of Georgia Power’s profit.
However, that seems like a long shot. A proposal to halt the Vogtle financing collections that already show up on Georgia Power bills didn’t pass this year.
Update: this story has been updated to reflect MEAG’s and Oglethorpe’s Monday actions on Vogtle.