Plant Vogtle remains a controversy as Biden, Congress fund nuclear expansion
By David Pendered
As Congress and the Biden administration support the nuclear power industry with $8.5 billion, the Plant Vogtle construction project remains over budget, behind schedule and the subject of watchdog criticism.
On the positive side for Vogtle, the newly funded federal policy to use nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions is an endorsement of nuclear as a component of the national energy portfolio. The plant benefited from approval in November by the state utility regulator to allow Georgia Power to pass construction costs to customers. The rate hikes are to begin a month after a reactor starts delivering power. The project is within 18 months of completion, according to a report by independent monitors.
On the negative side, construction of Vogtle’s two units is behind schedule. The latest projected in-service dates are no sooner than December 2022 and March 2023, according to a Dec. 1 report to utility regulators by two independent monitors. Additionally, the watchdog group Georgia Conservation Voters has issued a report calling for voters to oust all members of the state Public Service Commission, and for the state Legislature to establish an oversight committee “so something like this never happens again in Georgia.”
The GCV report, “Ratepayer Robbery — The True Cost of Plant Vogtle,” is presented as a 32-page summation of the Vogtle project, the regulatory environment and a four-point call-to-action that states:
The PSC should shield residential customers from some of the rate hikes; incumbent PSC members should be voted out of office; the state Legislature should recreate an office of should fund the shuttered Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection; and the Legislature should create the oversight committee.
For its part, Southern Co. cited the Plant Vogtle construction project in its latest federal securities filing as subject to “technical and procedural challenges… at the federal and state levels and additional challenges may arise.” Southern is the parent of Georgia Power, which owns most of Plant Vogtle in a consortium of other power companies.
One of the challenges Southern’s report referenced may be negotiation with partners over who’s to pay certain cost overruns. On Oct. 29, Georgia Power entered into an agreement with the other owners of the plant to resolve a dispute over COVID-related costs of $350 million, according to Southern’s Sept. 30 Form 10-Q, submitted to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
Also to be determined by state utility regulators is $576 million in after-tax payments by Georgia Power in the first three quarters of the year. Southern’s report states “Georgia Power may request the Georgia PSC to evaluate those expenditures for rate recovery.”
Southern’s report sums up the situation by observing: “The ultimate outcome of these matters cannot be determined at this time.”
Meanwhile, nuclear power is now at the heart of the energy policy of the United States.
The infrastructure bill President Biden signed on Nov. 15 envisions nuclear plants helping to reduce carbon emissions. The bill provides for the construction of a range of sizes of nuclear plants, as well as credits for existing plants to remain open despite the owners’ plans to close them because they lose money.
The bill provides urgency. Within 180 days of the president’s signature, the energy secretary is to deliver to Congress “a report that describes how the Department could enhance energy resilience and reduce carbon emissions with the use of micro-reactors and small modular reactors.” (Starting with Section 40321.)
A Nov. 9 statement from the Energy Department observes the infrastructure bill will “provide more than $62 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to deliver a more equitable clean energy future for the American people.” The nuclear funding represents almost 14 percent of the sum, including $2.5 billion for advanced nuclear projects.