Nuclear power’s landmark project stumbles across the finish line

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The Vogtle expansion’s arrival is a huge moment for the U.S. electric industry that experts and officials expect to ripple well beyond eastern Georgia. Never mind that the two new nuclear gems Southern is scrambling to add to its crown were supposed to be up and running in 2016 and 2017. Or that their cost has more than doubled to over $30 billion.

Vogtle proponents argue large-scale nuclear is crucial to meeting growing energy needs without climate-warming emissions and will soon prove its worth. Opponents point to past debacles and the plant’s repeated stumbles as reasons why more Vogtles can’t help meet President Joe Biden’s goal of a 100 percent carbon-free U.S. power grid by 2035.

Georgia Power CEO Kim Greene said in a statement Monday that Unit 3’s entry into commercial operations “marks the first day of the next 60 to 80 years that Vogtle Unit 3 will serve our customers with clean, reliable energy” and that it’s “important that we make these kinds of long-term investments and see them through.”

Southern’s new chief executive told investors in May about the project’s difficulties, while also stressing Vogtle’s importance.

“Yes, we’ve had our challenges,” CEO Chris Womack said during the company’s annual meeting. “I’m confident that the state of Georgia and our customers, our company, the world, will be so proud of the work that we’ve done in bringing Vogtle online.”

Spokespeople for Southern and Georgia Power did not provide updates on future nuclear investment plans when asked last week by E&E News.

‘U.S. nuclear renaissance’

Vogtle’s steps toward completion come as the Georgia Public Service Commission plans to decide how much ratepayer costs should rise to cover the project’s overruns. And U.S. senators last week passed legislation that’s supportive of the nuclear industry.

The plant’s new reactors will be able generate more than 1,000 megawatts each. Altogether, Vogtle’s two new reactors will be able to power more than 1 million homes and businesses with carbon-free electricity, Southern spokesperson John Kraft said. Georgia Power is building Vogtle with a group of public power utilities.

To help construct the expansion to Vogtle, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office had issued $12 billion in loan guarantees to Georgia power providers. Its director, Jigar Shah, said in an interview that there were a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned.

But Shah said he’s optimistic and thinks Vogtle is a nuclear turning point, with a pivot toward smaller-scale projects that will be easier and cheaper to replicate.

“We’re ecstatic that this project is going to be turned on and really respectful of the perseverance and grit that it took … but I also think it sets up the U.S. nuclear renaissance very well in small modular reactors,” Shah told E&E News.

Clean energy groups like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy warn that the enormous costs of units 3 and 4 could fall on ratepayers, because monopoly utilities, they say, aren’t meaningfully regulated in the region.

“There is no nuclear power plant that we’re aware of that has ever come on in the Southeast on budget or on schedule,” Stephen Smith, the alliance’s executive director, said in an interview.

Yet for folks like Steven Biegalski, chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s nuclear and radiological engineering program, Vogtle’s sheer generating capacity with no climate-warming emissions is reason enough to make more nuclear plants like it.

“The only technology to meet the demand that is currently available and proven are the AP1000 units that are just being built and finished at Vogtle,” he said. “Anything else is just sort of a pipe dream.”

Big nuclear

Plant Vogtle’s problems have been “the accumulation of quite a few design and construction deficiencies,” said Edwin Lyman, nuclear power safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The AP1000 reactor, a design from Westinghouse Electric Co., is at the heart of Vogtle’s expansion. Approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006, it was aimed at simplifying large nuclear with modularized designs meant to shorten construction schedules and reduce costs that would set a new industry standard.

But “big, complicated, megaprojects” require a “great deal of project management and coordinated project planning,” Kathryn Huff, who leads DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, said in an interview.

Challenges ranged from workforce constraints — the project required 9,000 builders, welders, electricians at the peak of construction — to what critics called a lack of meaningful regulation from public utility commissions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“It’s not that simple to manufacture these complex components and just stamp them together like Legos,” Lyman said.

Smith from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy pointed to difficulties at a similar South Carolina nuclear project.

An attempt to add two AP1000s to South Carolina’s V.C. Summer nuclear plant fell through in 2017. The expansion was designed to be similar to Vogtle’s and had an estimated $9.8 billion cost. But its price quickly ballooned, and its construction timeline was pushed back years past scheduled operational dates of 2016 and 2019.

Vogtle may have survived Westinghouse’s bankruptcy, but the plant has “taken so long that the industry itself has kind of moved beyond the whole concept of AP1000s,” Smith said.

While small modular reactors are worth researching in Biegalski’s view, he said the AP1000 design is the country’s “only option” for the immediate future of nuclear.

Nuclear advocates have acknowledged the delays.

“I can certainly understand the frustration — the nuclear industry has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering,” said Madison Hilly, executive director at the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal.

Still, the recently trained Vogtle workforce is a prime reason to keep the ball rolling, Georgia Tech’s Biegalski said. With this expertise, he sees future projects being built quicker and at a lower cost.

“If we put the baton down as the U.S. and wait another 10 or 15 years before we start building other nuclear power plants, it’s going to be the same exact story, where you have to recreate the wheel,” he said.

Tim Echols, vice chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, also shares the view that Vogtle shouldn’t be the last of its kind. But “no one seems to be interested in doing a big project anymore,” he said in an interview.

Biegalski said energy needs are only going to grow, noting extreme heat events in the country’s most populous two states: California and Texas. The Golden State was in danger of rolling blackouts last summer, and the Lone Star state’s electricity use is reaching all-time highs this summer.

While small modular reactors are worth researching in Biegalski’s view, he said the AP1000 design is the country’s “only option” for the immediate future of nuclear, he said.

Small reactors

As Vogtle expands, Southern and other power companies are trying to crack the equation of cheaper and easier to build carbon-free nuclear power.

This month, a Washington state public power agency said it’s planning to build the state’s first small modular reactors, eyeing a dozen units in partnership with a nuclear developer. Back in January, NuScale Power Corp. became the first small modular reactor design to be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

And Westinghouse, the AP1000’s architect, is aiming to build an AP300 — its first small modular reactor by 2030, looking at shuttered coal plants in West Virginia and Ohio as possible sites.

Engineering, procurement and construction contractors as well as financiers now have a preference for power projects at a fraction of Vogtle’s cost, according to Shah from the Loan Programs Office.

“The beauty of the small modular reactor is it fits within that $2 [billion] to $4 billion price range,” Shah said.

The country’s largest public power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has the biggest plans of the bunch. With global partners, it’s aiming to build and standardize a commercially viable small modular reactor that would be 300 MW per unit, compared to an AP1000 unit that is more than 1,000 MW.

Using a BWRX-300 design, TVA hopes to build a successful pilot and a fleet of potentially 20 small reactors to meet growing energy demands in the southeastern United States.

“TVA wants to be one of the first, and everybody else wants to see others succeed before they jump into the water,” said Greg Boerschig, vice president of the Clinch River Project, the agency’s first planned small modular reactor project.

Boerschig said some of TVA’s major takeaways from observing the Georgia project include the importance of using a mature design from the start and finishing one phase before moving onto the next.

“Don’t let your desire to succeed get in front of the will to plan. And plan effectively,” Boerschig said, adding that TVA “can make the same mistakes [Southern] did on a small plant, and we don’t want to do that.”

Echols said TVA could run into similar overruns by venturing to attempt another first of its kind.

“‘Why are y’all building four 300-megawatt reactors that haven’t been built anywhere instead of an AP1000?’” he said in speaking to E&E News. “You could just have our workforce just come up there, just one state up. That would be very attractive.”

TVA CEO Jeff Lyash has previously said that the agency favors small modular reactors over larger counterparts, citing factors including smaller anticipated capital commitments and shorter construction timelines.

Boerschig said TVA’s plans of smaller, dispatchable power make the most sense for the agency.

He hopes TVA in 2024 will be able to demonstrate that a first-of-a-kind small modular reactor can scale up to help meet growing power demand and can secure funding and construction approval next. In 2026, the electric utility expects it can get approval from U.S. nuclear regulators for the model.

Critics like Smith say utilities across the Southeast, such as TVA, Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion Energy Inc., are incentivized by a lack of energy market competition to build projects because they can profit with a rate of return guaranteed by state regulators.

“The southeast United States is really the only place that has been serious about trying to keep the nuclear flame alive,” Smith said, “because nobody else in competitive markets will touch building a new nuclear power plant.”

A federal agency, TVA is regulated by its board of directors, whose nine members are appointed by the U.S. president.

The power provider once proposed building 17 nuclear reactors at seven sites, but only seven were built, at a total cost of $8 billion across the 1970s and ‘80s.

The last nuclear plant to come online before Vogtle’s expansion, was TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2, started in the 1970s and brought into operation in 2016.

Smith called small modular reactors “a distraction.”

“They take our eye off the prize of really working with the technologies that we know can be done, can be modularly built out like solar and wind,” he said.

National security

Last month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited Georgia — and POLITICO Pro reported that she expressed confidence that Vogtle’s latest woes wouldn’t depress future nuclear investment. Granholm insisted that the new reactor’s entry into commercial operations would bring international interest to American nuclear.

That interest is crucial to U.S. national security if the nation wants to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and maintain its deterrence capabilities, Shah told E&E News. That’s because other countries will continue to pursue nuclear energy regardless of where the U.S. takes it, he said.

“If we don’t show a proactive stance here, then countries who want access to nuclear technology will go to those other countries, oftentimes Russia and China,” Shah said.

Biegalski echoed the sentiment, saying the United States has “to be very, very, very careful at how world maps are redrawn and alliances are redrawn through these energy policies.”

As for improving upon Vogtle’s delays and cost overruns, and those of nuclear plants that preceded it, Lyman said that it “doesn’t seem like the industry writ large is really interested in learning those lessons.”

Domestic appetite for nuclear is still holding on strong among some power providers.

Dominion and Duke have included nuclear power in integrated resource plans. Duke in particular got $70 million approved from the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Shah said, to start working out early site permitting for a small modular reactor.

American Electric Power Co. and Southern have also made verbal commitments around future plans for small modular reactors, Shah added.

“That momentum sometimes leads to a renaissance,” Shah said, “but we’ll have to wait and see.”

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