The last nuclear reactors under construction in the US are facing opposition

By Megan Geuss

Two nuclear reactors are under construction at Vogtle’s nuclear power plant in Georgia, and they are a lonely pair in a stagnating US nuclear industry. Now, leaders of municipalities and utilities that are on the hook to buy electricity from Vogtle’s new reactors are saying they want the project stopped to save their customers from having to shoulder the cost burden. The three major owners of the construction project are expected to vote on whether to keep it or cut losses in the coming days.

Costs for Vogtle and its sister reactors at the Summer nuclear power plant in South Carolina ballooned to well over their roughly $7 billion estimated cost, and when reactor-maker Westinghouse went bankrupt last year, the projects faced a choice: end construction and move on or keep on trucking in the hopes that further construction costs could be limited.

South Carolina chose the former path, and Georgia seemed on track to choose the latter last winter. At the time, the Georgia Public Service Commission voted to keep the project alive by allowing Georgia Power, which owns 45.7 percent of the reactor project, to place some of the burden of completion costs on rate payers. The reactors have expected completion dates of 2021 and 2022.

But since then, Georgia Power has announced additional cost increases, specifically saying last month that an additional $2.3 billion would have to be spent on the already $25 billion dollar project. Now, 20 Georgia lawmakers are urging the owners of the Vogtle project to cap costs immediately, according to The Florida Times-Union. JEA, a public utility serving Jacksonville, Florida, has been working every possible angle to get out of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) signed in 2008 that would see it buy about 10 percent of the power from the two new reactors over the next 20 years, according to The Wall Street Journal.

By contrast, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has urged the owners to finish completing the nuclear reactors, arguing that the completed reactors would be economically good for the state. JEA has been the most vocal in opposing continuation of the project, arguing that there are cheaper ways to get electricity these days. The utility has asked federal regulators to intervene in its PPA, and it has called on the owners of the project including the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, which is a 22.7-percent owner of the project, and 30-percent-owner Oglethorpe to vote to cancel the project.

According to The Florida Times-Union, majority owner Georgia Power is not backing down from completing the reactor build. “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,” company spokesman John Kraft told the paper.

Georgia Power, Oglethorpe, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and 1.6-percent-owner Dalton Utilities must vote by September 24 on whether to continue the project, although it is possible that the members will formally delay the vote. A recent study from MIT showed that one of the major hindrances to nuclear power’s rise in the United States is construction cost. In the case of Summer and Vogtle, issues with contractors and finding qualified workers was a major hurdle.

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