June 23, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between WABE and Grista non-profit environmental media organization.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called for more new nuclear energy at an event Wednesday celebrating the first new nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in decades at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia. Construction of those reactors, known as Vogtle Units 3 and 4, cost more than twice its original budget and ended up years behind schedule.

“Today we celebrate the end of that project,” Kemp told the crowd of state officials and utility executives. “And now, let’s start planning for Vogtle Five.”

It could be a tough sell for Georgians who have seen their bills rise multiple times to pay for the new reactors and for shareholders of the power plant’s largest owner, who have had to absorb some of the costs. Originally billed as the dawn of a new nuclear age and priced at $14 billion, the Plant Vogtle project was plagued by repeated delays and ended up costing an estimated total of more than $31 billion.

When prime contractor Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in 2017, prompting South Carolina to abandon its own nuclear project, Vogtle became the only new nuclear construction in the country. It still is.

“If building more nuclear power was a good idea, other states would be jumping on the bandwagon by now,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch. “The fact that they’re not, I think, speaks volumes.”

Coyle said her group is preparing to fight any proposal for another reactor.

For their part, the elected officials and utility executives spoke of Plant Vogtle as a success story at Wednesday’s event.

“Vogtle 3 and 4 represent not only an incredible economic development asset for our state and … a milestone for our entire country,” Kemp said. “They also stand as physical examples of something I remind myself of every day: Hard times don’t last. Difficult people do.”

Triumphant renditions of the national anthem, “God Bless America,” and “Georgia On My Mind” backed by a gospel choir concluded the celebratory speeches. Attendees were able to nibble on a sheet cake model of the power plant crafted in fondant.

Slices of yellow sheet cake surround a large sheet cake model pretending to look like the nuclear reactor.
A sheet cake version of the nuclear plant Vogtle was one of the festive aspects of the reactor’s opening ceremony.
Emily Jones / Grist

Speakers touted Plant Vogtle as a win for clean energy, as it could produce enough electricity to power a million homes and businesses without the greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal or gas, according to Georgia Power, which has the largest stake in the own new reactors. That carbon-free energy is key to attracting new businesses to the state, Kemp and others said.

All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commissionor PSC — which oversees Georgia Power’s planning and rates, including the Vogtle project — addressed the crowd.

“I just hope we keep it up. We really have to,” said Commissioner Tricia Pridemore. “If we want to continue clean energy for our nation, it will take more than four.”

In December, the PSC approved an agreement that raises Georgia Power customers’ rates now that Vogtle Unit 4 is online.

After the Wednesday event, Commissioner Tim Echols said he supports more nuclear power in Georgia, but said a further Vogtle expansion would be necessary with protections against runaway costs and other problems that plagued the last project.

“I really need some protection from a bankruptcy,” he said. “I just can’t do it again on the same basis.”

Echols proposed a federal “backstop” and a mechanism to ensure that large customers such as factories and data centers would pay for the bulk of nuclear construction.

Under current Georgia law, further expansion of Plant Vogtle would have to be financed differently than the project just completed, Coyle said. In 2018, state lawmakers passed a sunset provision for the state law that allowed Georgia Power to pass along Vogtle’s financing costs to customers during construction. Barring another change, this would mean that Southern Company and its shareholders would bear that cost.

Coyle said she will urge lawmakers to keep it that way.

“Georgians are already struggling, really, really struggling to pay their power bills,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to go down this road again.”

On Friday, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi will visit Vogtle for another event at the power plant. According to the Department of Energy, they plan to meet with local officials, as well as industry and labor leaders.

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