Georgia’s new nuclear reactors a cautionary tale
Regulators and industry professionals have been gushing over the launch of Georgia’s newest nuclear reactor—Plant Vogtle’s Unit 3. It’s the first such reactor built in the United States in over three decades, and it is positioned to provide around 500,000 customers with clean energy for up to 80 years, which is something to celebrate.
Electric monopoly Georgia Power—who owns a nearly 50 percent stake in it—hailed the recent Vogtle construction as an “American energy success story.” While nuclear energy is impressive and there’s reason to be awestruck by Unit 3, the Vogtle project has been an absolute mess. It’s less of an American success story and more of a subsidized boondoggle that should serve as a cautionary tale for others.
In the early planning stages, a conglomerate of electric companies came together with plans to build two new nuclear reactors—units 3 and 4—and quickly obtained some attractive deals. The U.S. Department of Energy agreed to provide $12 billion in loan guarantees for the construction, the Georgia Public Service Commission greenlit the Vogtle plan, and in 2009, the state Legislature permitted Georgia Power to raise ratepayers’ bills to begin recouping the construction costs far in advance of the units’ completion.
Since Georgia has a monopoly system for electric companies, customers have little choice but to fork out the cash, and the utilities saw little risk and heralded the plan. The construction was intended as a clean energy investment in the future. Best of all, the units would supposedly be completed quickly and for a fair price. That’s where things began to fall apart.
Plant Vogtle’s construction could be best described by the Beach Boys’ lyric, “We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow” because the only thing that happened relatively quickly were the sweetheart deals. Original estimates suggested that units 3 and 4 would be operational in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and the total project would cost around $14 billion. That’s a lot of money for captive ratepayers to bankroll, but that turned out to be more like a down payment. Cost overruns and persistent delays plagued Vogtle.
Construction began in 2009, but only by this summer did Unit 3 become operational for commercial use—7 years behind schedule. Meanwhile, Unit 4 isn’t expected to serve customers until later this year or next. Further, the running price tag for the project now exceeds $35 billion—more than double the original projection—but this was easily foreseeable.
Built in the late 1980s, Vogtle’s units 1 and 2 cost many billions more than estimated, and over 20 nuclear projects have been abandoned in the South since the 1970s for various reasons. Constructing massive nuclear reactors isn’t cheap, nor is it a simple task by any means, and just as anyone who watched the HBO series Chernobyl knows, you don’t want to rush through construction and cut corners.
Don’t get me wrong. Nuclear power presents an opportunity to improve energy security for years to come and rely on cleaner energy. Whether you’re concerned about global warming or just like the outdoors, we should all agree that less pollution is generally preferable, but are these mega-nuclear projects the future of energy generation?
Some people have claimed that we may be in the midst of a nuclear energy revival. Time will tell if that proves true or is just wishful thinking. As it stands, officials have shuttered many reactors in the U.S., Germany and Japan, and new construction is slow-going in the U.S. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, “While utilities in Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming have laid initial plans to build new reactors, there is currently not a single signed order for another new commercial nuclear unit in the U.S.”
However, various experts have predicted that the future of nuclear power isn’t in mega projects like Vogtle, but smaller, modular reactors. In fact, the federal government has been funding the research and development of them, and they seem promising. They are far cheaper, quicker and less complex to build and produce less toxic waste than traditional nuclear plants, like those at Vogtle.
If nuclear energy is in a resurgence, then Vogtle should serve as a cautionary tale for other states. Mega projects subsidized by the government and underwritten by electric monopolies’ captive ratepayers are fraught with problems. Rather than rushing to help finance massively wealthy energy companies’ nuclear ambitions, the government should reassess whether the actual—not estimated—costs and delays are worth it.
Governments love to act rashly, and asking them to proceed with caution might be futile in a changing world, which reminds me of another song lyric: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”