This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.Guest Blog | April 1, 2016
An opinion editorial, similar to this blog post, ran in Creative Loafing Atlanta on March 31, 2016, find it online here.
We’d like to congratulate Georgia Power for bringing the first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle on schedule and on budget.
Bah hah hah! Just kidding! April Fool’s!
Joke #1: Original Operation Date: April 1, 2016 – Now more like June 2019???
Here’s the deal…originally Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, along with its utility partners Oglethorpe Power, MEAG and Dalton Utilities, were supposed to have the first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia online and operational by today, April 1, 2016. Yes, April Fool’s Day, making this Joke #1 played on Georgia ratepayers. Not sure how anyone missed that ironic choice of dates.
While it might seem like a very bad April Fool’s joke, the multi-billion dollar cost overruns for two more water-guzzling nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Burke County along the Savannah River is no laughing matter to Georgia Power customers. They have already paid more than $1.4 billion for reactors that won’t be operational until 2020 or 2021, if even then.
Six years into construction, the project is 39 months behind schedule with more delays likely. There have been years of delay, extreme cost overruns, and persistent engineering and construction problems with the module fabrication. Georgia Power and the nuclear industry claimed modular construction would make building new reactors easier and more cost effective — wrong! Those factors, combined with other issues such as significant and costly rework, should upset those stuck paying for this corporate fiasco.
The nuclear power industry has a decades-long track record of running over budget and behind schedule. Although history is repeating itself, the big power companies don’t seem to care. That’s probably because customers are again footing the bill for the industry’s so-called “nuclear renaissance” despite all the problems.
For those not aware, Plant Vogtle was one of the last and most costly nuclear plants built in the country — a genuine boondoggle. Original estimates for four reactors were $660 million. Eventually, only two reactors were completed in the late 1980s, costing more than $8 billion, resulting at the time in the largest rate hike Georgians have ever experienced.
But despite that poor performance, Georgia utilities decided in the mid-2000s to venture again down this costly and risky path. This time, they’d build two new Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, a design that has yet to be built or operated anywhere in the world. And the utilities and their supporters claimed there wouldn’t be the same problems that plagued the nuclear power industry previously — the massive cost increases and delays that basically resulted in no reactors being built here in the U.S. for nearly thirty years.
Joke #2 Original estimated cost: $14 Billion – Now closer to $22 Billion!
A so-called “nuclear renaissance” was underway with more than thirty new reactors proposed, more than half here in the Southeast. Only four actually made it past the planning stages and to construction: two at Vogtle and two at SCANA’s V.C. Summer in South Carolina. And in Vogtle’s case, what was originally estimated at being a $14 billion project is now closer to $22 billion.
Significant “carrots” had to be dangled in front of the utilities, including a new, streamlined licensing process. Not surprisingly, Southern Company nabbed them all: public-private cost sharing for the licensing of the reactors, billions of dollars in taxpayer-backed federal loan guarantees, federal production tax credits worth over a billion dollars, and anti-consumer state legislation that passed (with the help of an army of lobbyists) in 2009. That piece of legislation was Senate Bill 31, or “Georgia’s Nuclear Energy Financing Act,” which allows Georgia Power to (we think unfairly) charge their customers in advance for the financing costs of the new reactors.
Because of the delay, those financing costs now represent the largest share of the cost overruns of the project. (For Georgia Power customers, look at your monthly electric bill; you’re paying just over 9.7 percent, which will increase. This collection started in 2011 at just over 5 percent.)
In 2015, the Georgia Public Service Commission Staff developed an estimate of the impact of the 39-month delay on residential ratepayers’ bills. A residential customer with average monthly usage of approximately 1,000 kWh will pay approximately $319 during the delay period of April 2016 through June 2020 for additional financing cost and replacement fuel cost, an average of $6.26 per month.
Georgia Power says this pre-payment scheme would save customers money. But according to PSC expert witnesses, the project is so off-track that any of the purported benefits, which were originally in the billions of dollars, have been completely negated.
Unfortunately, House Bill 931 sponsored by Rep. Karla Drenner failed to receive a vote by the Georgia State Legislature this session (as did her resolution to study the issue, a very modest request given the billions of dollars at stake). If passed, her bill would not have allowed Georgia Power to collect the financing cost surcharge after it should have ended in March 2017. An estimated $2.4 billion in financing costs is associated with the current 39-month delay. During the 13th Vogtle Construction Monitoring (VCM) hearing in December, SACE was able to confirm that the approximately 46 percent tax gross up rate should be included, which amounts to an additional $1.264 billion in financing costs. Hopefully in next year’s session the Legislature can wake up and stop being duped by the big power companies.
Joke #3: Several years and billions of dollars later, the reactors are still not done! Meanwhile Georgia Power considers building even more nukes!
And if the current construction problems involving Plant Vogtle aren’t enough, Georgia Power is actually considering building even more water-intensive reactors, potentially in Stewart County along the Chattahoochee River. (Additional reactors at Vogtle might be the more likely location.)
Stay tuned about upcoming proceedings before the PSC for Plant Vogtle that may shed some more light. Georgians can’t afford to have nuclear power’s history repeated for a third time. April Fool’s is only one day a year. But the effects of poor energy planning coupled with anti-consumer state legislation negatively affects generations. The “renaissance” is over. Consumers need to stand up, speak out and stop being fooled before it’s too late — again.