Thursday will be a big day for Georgia Power, millions of its customers all over the state, and the entire U.S. nuclear industry.
That’s when the utility will say whether it wants to continue building two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. It’s the majority owner of the facility, which already has two operating nuclear reactors built back in the 1980s.
Since that time, a similar Westinghouse nuclear project in South Carolina was abandoned leaving Vogtle as the only active nuclear project left in the country.
“It’s been a more difficult year than we would have ever anticipated. I don’t see that changing in the coming months,” said Georgia Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise.
His will likely be one of the first pairs of eyes on Georgia Power’s semi-annual Vogtle construction monitoring report later this week.
It’s there the utility will not only announce its intentions for the project, which is already years behind schedule and billions over budget, but the cost and time to complete it.
Wise and the other members of the state’s utility regulator will then begin the months-long process of reviewing the report before deciding whether to approve Georgia Power’s plans.
“It would be great to look at the thing and give a cursory read to it for one week and wave your wand and say, ‘Well, go forth and complete this project.’ But it’s just not how we do it,” he said.
Wise says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the utility will decide to move ahead with Vogtle and that he expects a final decision from the PSC in February 2018.
Other commission members have publicly said they want to see the project finished.
That’s disheartening to Liz Coyle, who runs consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch.
“I believe the PSC has signaled to [Georgia Power]: ‘Despite the cost, we’re willing to let you keep going forward, and we’ll decide later how much of it ratepayers have to pay,’” she said.
Georgia Power customers have been on the hook for the costs associated with Vogtle since 2009, when state legislators passed a law allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for the expansion.
They’ve already paid close to $2 billion for the project. And Coyle says if the PSC allows Vogtle to go forward, they’ll be issuing Georgia Power a blank check.
“We won’t know for years how unaffordable these units are gonna be. But what we do know today is it’s too expensive for the ratepayers of Georgia to have to bear alone,” she said.
But the costs could extend past the pocketbook and into the environment. If Georgia Power and the other stakeholders decide to abandon the project, they’ll have to figure out what to do next.
“Vogtle was sold to us as a source of carbon-free energy. And so, if it fails, I think it’s incumbent upon the utility and its regulators to replace it with carbon-free energy,” said Kurt Ebersbach with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
He says Georgia Power and its partners should keep their eye on cleaner energy sources like solar and wind.
Ebersbach would also like them to ask whether the state still needs all the electricity Vogtle was set to produce when it came online this year.
A recent report from the SELC suggests that improved solar technology and improvements in energy efficiency will help Georgia meet its energy needs until 2030.
“Is there such a need in 2023, 2024 when the units may come online? That’s not so clear,” Ebersbach said. “The farther you go out in the future, the harder it gets to predict.”