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Editorial: Nuclear power play keeps Vogtle project alive
Plan moves ahead with changes, but customers’ patience is wearing thin
12172017 PLANT VOGTLE
Work continues on a new reactor at Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro in this photo from 2014. - photo by John Bazemore | Associated Press

For years, Georgia Power customers, nuclear power opponents and some politicians have been arguing that construction of the two new reactors at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant near Waynesboro is the state’s all-time white elephant.

The project, the nation’s only nuclear plant construction still ongoing, is already a year overdue, nowhere near finished and $1 billion overbudget. final cost is expected to reach near $27 billion, more than twice the original $13 billion price tag. Last year’s bankruptcy filing of the project’s lead contractor, Westinghouse, set the deadline back even further.

Yet late last year, the Georgia Public Service Commission fended off pressure from ratepayers and anti-nuclear advocates and voted to back Georgia Power’s request to continue the work.

But now, after years of seemingly exhaustive support for an enterprise with no limits, some are finally fed up enough to say no.

The most recent and crucial rebellion came recently from one of the project’s partner utilities. Oglethorpe Power threatened to pull out of the reactor construction if some effort wasn’t made to ease its financial commitment. Oglethorpe is one of three smaller electric membership corporations that serve as junior partners in the project along with Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Company.

But though Georgia Power is a for-profit with shareholders to help shoulder the costs, smaller EMCs don’t have that flexibility and must make their customers bear the funding burden.

Oglethorpe balked at reaffirming its partnership and argued its case to lawmakers for relief. They seemed to find sympathetic ears, with 20 legislators, including Hall County Sen. Butch Miller and other influential leaders, urging the partners to consider a cap on the project’s costs before more losses are passed on to consumers.

The new deal doesn’t exactly do that, but it does to ensure that further cost overruns will be shared more equitably among Georgia Power and the owners of the project — Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities. Specifically Georgia Power must take on a greater portion of future deficits.

Yet even with a somewhat more reasonable deal for the owners, it could still leave ratepayers on the hook for the extra costs as the project wobbles toward the finish line.

“We’re very concerned about today’s announcement because it’s clear the Plant Vogtle nuclear project is in serious trouble if this much arm twisting is necessary to keep all four partners at the table,” Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said in an emailed statement.

Liz Coyle, executive director of consumer advocate Georgia Watch, said it “appears the owners have decided to plow ahead with a project that holds continued uncertainty and certainly clear risk of major cost increases and very little, if any true protections for Georgia’s electric customers.”

It’s worth noting that in addition to those who see the reactor construction as an endless money pit, others object over the viability and safety of nuclear power as a long-term solution to ease off carbon-based fuels.

Defenders of the Vogtle reactors argue that the jobs it creates in that part of the state justify its support. Among them is Gov. Nathan Deal, who urged Oglethorpe to stay with construction plans “before walking away from 7,000 Georgia jobs.”

We understand bringing jobs to the state has been the governor’s chief priority and achievement, and it is one economic benefit of the project. But utility customers should only have to pay for their electric power, not a jobs program without end or limits on how much is spent.

Oglethorpe’s resistance to continuing without some guarantees was timely and needed, but it’s only the first step. The only way to ensure customers won’t have to keep paying more is if legislators insist on the cost caps they suggested. Perhaps that would accomplish what the Public Service Commission has thus far been unwilling or unable to do to rein in cost overruns.

Remember, that five-member board voted unanimously last year to allow the utilities to keep charging customers for its boondoggle. It fits the profile of a state agency that over the years has seldom met a rate hike it wouldn’t rubber-stamp for utilities, many of which provide campaign donations to its members.

Yet Georgians do get a say in how this plays out. There’s a statewide election in less than a month and two PSC seats are on the ballot. Perhaps if commissioners got a message from voters making it clear they’re tired of footing the bill, the board wouldn’t be as eager to keep signing off on this and other costly ventures.

Customers of Georgia Power and its partner EMCs already have paid more than their fair share to get the reactors on line. Even if the plant is finished and begins turning out electrical power, it will take years to recoup what has been invested. It’s time to unplug ratepayers from the burden and let the big corporation’s shareholders take that responsibility.

Even the strongest advocates for nuclear power as a replacement for carbon-based energy have to understand there isn’t an endless supply of construction money in the pockets of Georgia utility consumers.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community member Brent Hoffman.

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