As Plant Vogtle clears key hurdle, Marietta votes to keep paying its share

·5 min read

Aug. 5—This week, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission signed off on a critical step leading up to fuel loading at the first of two new nuclear reactors being built at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle, which Marietta owns a stake in.

The commission confirmed in a letter to Southern Nuclear, which is managing the project, that the new unit has been constructed and will be operated in conformance with NRC regulations.

Once complete, the two reactors will provide increased power generation for the city of Marietta, which will pay back its hundreds of millions in debt on the project over the coming decades.

Just eight days prior to the NRC letter, the Marietta City Council indicated it wants to continue paying into the nearly complete project, instead of freezing its costs and selling part of its stake.

Originally expected to be completed in 2016 and 2017, the first of the two new reactors now is due to go into service by the first quarter of next year. The second unit is scheduled to follow by the fourth quarter of 2023. Initially budgeted to cost $14 billion, the project's price tag has more than doubled to more than $30 billion.

The largest stake in the project, 45.7%, is owned by Georgia Power. Oglethorpe Power owns 30%. MEAG Power, which provides electricity to communities including Marietta and Acworth, owns 22.7%. Dalton Utilities owns 1.6%.

In 2018, all four partners entered into an agreement which stipulates that if the project costs reach a certain point, the minority partners are allowed to reduce their ownership share in exchange for Georgia Power picking up 100% of the remaining costs to complete the project. That point has now been reached.

Oglethorpe Power has opted to freeze its costs, but MEAG has not taken that step.

The Marietta City Council voted unanimously last week to indicate that it didn't want to freeze costs. The vote was 5-0, with M. Carlyle Kent and Grif Chalfant absent.

"We want the generation, and we'll keep paying to get full generation. That's really what our vote said," Tumlin told the MDJ.

Tumlin said that vote sends a message from the city to MEAG indicating its preference, but could still be overridden, if the MEAG board decided to cap costs and sell off some of its ownership stake. Other MEAG cities are also voting to indicate their preference, he said. Tumlin himself chairs the nine-member MEAG board.

"This is almost a straw vote, they (MEAG) want to know how the members feel," Tumlin said at the council meeting.

Marietta is a "long city," the mayor said, having always had more power generation than it needs, and selling the excess on the market. Right now, energy prices are high due to higher natural gas prices and hot weather, he said.

"We sell it on the market. ... we're selling it, and actually making a profit right now," Tumlin said.

Other cities, "short cities," have less generation than they need and buy the rest on the market. Marietta being a long city allows it to have lower rates, Tumlin said. And adding the nuclear power generation from Vogtle's expansion will enable the city to keep it that way, as coal plants close.

"You look at the world with all these storms, you look at the world where natural gas has tripled in price, you look at the world where there's gonna be no coal," the mayor said. "Despite the egg on everybody's face, (from) going way over budget," Tumlin added, selling off some of the city's Vogtle megawatts would be the wrong call.

MEAG has put about $7 billion into the project, Tumlin said.

Marietta has incurred debt of about $700 million, per Tumlin, which will be paid off over the next four decades.

Tumlin said recent regulatory approvals for the project are a big deal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's finding means the first new reactor at the nuclear plant south of Augusta is on track to go into service next March after years of delays and cost overruns.

"Today's finding by the NRC helps ensure we have met our commitment to building Vogtle 3 & 4 with the highest safety and quality standards," Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power, said Wednesday.

"These new units remain a strong long-term investment for this state, and, once operating, are expected to provide customers with a reliable and resilient, clean, emission-free source of energy for the next 60 to 80 years."

During the next several weeks, technicians will continue work required to support loading fuel, which is already onsite, into the unit's reactor.

Several months of startup testing will follow, designed to demonstrate the integrated operation of the primary coolant system and steam supply system at design temperature and pressure with fuel inside the reactor.

"If it survives the test ... we should be at the end of the tunnel," Tumlin said.

Operators also will bring the plant from cold shutdown, systematically raising power to 100%.

A key factor in the project delays was the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, originally the prime contractor for the project. Pandemic-delayed work slowdowns also played a role.

The delays and cost overruns have prompted the project's critics to argue Georgia Power could have saved customers billions of dollars by abandoning the nuclear expansion and taken a more aggressive approach toward developing renewable energy.

"Delays, errors and cost overruns have plagued this failed project from the start of construction," said Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South.

"Loading nuclear fuel into this untested reactor design is a risky step that may well proceed similarly, with yet more ominous ramifications upon actual start up."

Georgia Power officials have countered that nuclear power is an important part of a balanced portfolio of energy generating sources.

Tumlin agrees.

"A healthy electric system is good for everybody, no matter what their source is. ... When you put good clean energy on the market, so to speak, it helps all of us."

— Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.