CO2-free promise or cautionary tale?  Georgia’s new reactors go online amid fanfare and criticism – WABE

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The first new nuclear reactor built in the US in more than 40 years is now operational in Waynesboro, Georgia.

The completion of Plant Vogtle Unit 3, the first of two reactors being built at an existing nuclear power plant on the Savannah River, is an important milestone not only for the long-delayed project itself, but also for nuclear energy in the United States.

After more than a decade of construction and rising costs, the first of the two new reactors began producing electricity at full capacity in May. It’s expected to go online this month after a final round of testing.

The new blocks at the Vogtle power plant were the first nuclear power plant constructions in the country to be licensed in decades and are the country’s only new reactors currently under construction.

“I am confident that the state of Georgia and our customers, our company and the world will be so proud of the work we have done to bring Vogtle online,” said Chris Womack, Georgia Power’s former CEO and current leader of parent company Southern Company at the company’s annual meeting last month.

But while the project was once considered the future of US nuclear power, Vogtle’s story has become more complicated as construction dragged on for a decade and costs continued to mount.

Plant Vogtle is now part carbon-free promise and part cautionary tale.

“In a rational world, this would be the last nuclear power project to be built in the United States,” said University of British Columbia physicist and nuclear skeptic MV Ramana.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Vogtle construction in 2012, the project was hailed as the dawn of a new nuclear age.

“The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry is beginning here in Georgia, which has just received approval to build new nuclear reactors for the first time in three decades,” then-Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told workers at the plant as construction began.

Over the past decade, the climate crisis has deepened and the need for decarbonization has become more urgent, making nuclear power more attractive. Since renewable energy sources are often only available intermittently – depending on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing – many consider nuclear power plants as an important supplementary energy source. Each Vogtle reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes without burning fossil fuels.

“If we close coal plants, we have to replace them with something,” said Tim Echols, a commissioner with the Georgia Public Service Commission. The agency regulates Georgia Power and oversees the company’s spending on Plant Vogtle

That shift can significantly reduce climate-warming emissions, said Marilyn Brown, a professor of public policy at Georgia Tech who tracks the state’s emissions. Ultimately, she said, both new nuclear plants could help Georgia Power reduce emissions by as much as five to 10 percent.

“That’s a big number,” Brown said.

But throughout the decade of its construction, the project also faced recurring delays and rising costs. The first reactor should go online in 2016; This milestone is reached seven years later. The total price has more than doubled to over $30 billion.

Now utilities are looking for nuclear projects whose cost and schedule would be more reliable, said John Kotek of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He said companies would focus on smaller reactors that would generate hundreds of megawatts, rather than thousands like the Vogtle reactors.

“One reason for the small modular reactors here in the US is that they have a lower price,” Kotek said. “They’re just physically smaller machines that cost less to build. Commissioning will take less time.”

But critics say that was also Vogtle’s promise that it would be a new type of reactor that would be cheaper and quicker to build. Ramana said there was no reason to think small modular reactors would be any different.

“I think the lesson we should learn from this is: what works on the computer doesn’t work in the real world,” he said.

The Plant-Vogtle reactors are a design called the AP1000, which developer Westinghouse says could be cheaper and faster to build, thanks in part to its modular design, which relies on factory-made components rather than building from scratch on site .

But the cost estimate immediately jumped when it came time to actually build, Ramana said, and only went up from there. All of this is predictable, he said, as most other nuclear projects are plagued by similar problems.

In fact, it was predicted back then: Public Interest Advocacy staffers at the Georgia Public Service Commission warned back in 2008 that costs could skyrocket. They advocated a risk-sharing mechanism to give Georgia Power an incentive to keep construction costs down but rejected plans to bill customers for the Vogtle project during construction.

Both proposals failed. Thanks to a 2009 state law, Georgia Power’s tariffpayers pay a monthly fee to cover the cost of building nuclear power plants to help fund the project’s financing costs. They will start paying an additional monthly fee once the new Plant Vogtle unit comes online this month – the third bill increase for Georgia Power customers this year. Further Vogtle costs will later be shown on the customer invoices.

“It’s absolutely silly that they have to shoulder the burden of gambling with this type of technology,” said Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Instead of the risk-sharing idea, the Public Service Commission has an option to review Plant Vogtle’s costs once both entities are online. Proponents are bracing for a fight over how much of the cost of Plant Vogtle’s ever-increasing price is worthwhile.

Looking ahead, Whitfield said there are cheaper ways to decarbonize — such as improvements in energy efficiency and solar power, which is now cheaper than gas, coal and nuclear power.

Proponents see nuclear energy as a necessary complement to renewable energy, as it provides so-called base load energy at all times, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

“A new nuclear project alone may seem more expensive than, say, a utility-scale solar plant,” Kotek said. “But this nuclear facility will offer much greater added value. It will deliver things that other technologies cannot.”

But that’s old-fashioned thinking, Ramana said.

“They just want coal-fired power plants without coal. And they think about solving it this way. We will never solve the climate problem like this,” he said. “We have to rethink how we want to manage the network. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution.”