More delays and higher costs for Vogtle nuclear reactors, consumer groups say no surprise

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Georgia Power announced Thursday ‘a revised schedule and cost forecast’ for the Vogtle 3 and 4 nuclear expansion project. In other words, the construction of the new reactors is delayed again and there are more cost overruns.

This company says the latest overrun is $460 million but that Georgia Power shareholders are set to take the loss. The Public Service Commission’s public interest advocacy staff and their witnesses recently testified the overrun may be closer to $1 Billion. Georgia Power indicated its share of the approved project cost of $7.3 Billion has now risen to just over $9 Billion.

It also said an expected date to put the first of two new reactors, Unit 3 online, which was recently pushed back from December of this year to the first quarter of 2022, has been pushed back again to the second quarter of 2022.

“This latest delay should not come as a surprise to anyone that’s been paying attention because every schedule that Georgia Power has put out before the Public Service Commission (PSC) has been bogus,” said Bryan Jacob from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Liz Coyle from Georgia Watch agrees.

“It’s not a surprise and I think this is a moment when the power company is having to engage in a bit of a reality check,” said Coyle. “PSC staff has been saying through the last few cycles of project reviews that the company was not going to meet service dates for 2021 and 2022.”

Coyle and Jacob also have their doubts that the company will make the second quarter of 2022 for Unit 3.

“Commission staff has been saying all along it finds it unlikey that Georgia Power can meet targets it sets because they have been missing so many key milestons on the schedule,” said Coyle

“The company is still presenting too rosy a picture,” said Jacob who told us that commission staff already says Unit 3 is more likely to go online between August and October.

Coyle says both units were originally set to go online in 2016 and 2017. Now it’s 2022 and 2023. And while Georgia Power customers have not paid higher rates yet as a result of the project, Coyle says millions of dollars has been given to the company for loan interest costs in a nuclear fee on power bills.

“That’s what initially put rate payers on the hook,” says Coyle.

Coyle says since the project was conceived more than a decade ago, things have changed in terms of energy use and the availably of renewable energy, including more advances in battery power storage for solar energy.

However, once the new reactors are online, customers are expected to pay higher rates of up to $14 per month (for average households) to recoup the capital costs of construction.

“We shouldn’t have to pay because they went with nuclear instead of other alternatives and because they have not stayed within the orignal budget,” said Coyle.

Coyle also says many customers are already having trouble paying power bills.

Georgia Power said the recent delay is due to productivity challenges and additional time for testing and quality assurance.

“Georgia Power is focused on safety and quality as we complete this project,” said Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. “Vogtle 3 & 4 remains a critical investment for the state to provide low-cost, reliable and emissions-free electricity for the state of Georgia for 60 to 80 years. This is too important to our customers, our state and our nation for us not to get it right, and we will.”

Jacob told us that the announcement came Thursday because timing on the cost of the reactors tends to coincide with when they (Georgia Power) have to meet with their shareholders.

“So basically, they announced it yesterday and then had the second quarter earnings call,” said Jacob.

Jacob also says a recent announcement from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it is investigating some of of the electrical work for safety assurance could cause delays as well.

“Just the process of the NRC investigation may delay things too and may have been a factor in the company’s announcement,” said Jacob.

“So even for experts it’s a guessing game and you don’t know what the NRC might find in their investigation or whether it could to further re-working,” said Coyle.

“We knew building the first new nuclear units in the U.S. in more than 30 years would be challenging,” said Georgia Power’s CEO Chris Womack. “The project has endured extraordinary circumstances during construction, including the pandemic as the most recent. Through these challenges, we have learned a great deal. Unit 3 Hot Functional Testing has now been successfully completed with no significant issues identified, which is a critical step toward completion.”

The company said Unit 3 is 99% complete while Unit 4 is 93% complete.

Advocates say while the company has said it will not seek reimbursement from customers for the most recent cost overrun, that once the project is finally online, they think the company may go back to the PSC to try to recoup more of its losses.

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