The drama over the fate of the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion in Georgia continued September 25 as the four co-owners of the project sparred over conditions that one of the co-owners, Oglethorpe Power, wants in order to secure its support for moving forward with the project.
A vote on the future of the oft-delayed, massively over budget project was delayed several times Tuesday before eventually being pushed to 5 p.m. Eastern time September 26. The plant’s co-owners on Monday agreed construction should continue on two new AP1000 reactors at the site in Waynesboro, but Oglethorpe’s support was conditional, with the electric membership cooperative saying it needs an agreement on how costs for continuing construction will be capped before casting a “yes” vote. A “no” vote from Oglethorpe could bring a cancellation of the project.
Steve Tumlin, the mayor of Marietta, Georgia, and the city’s representative on the board of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power), said the deadline for a definitive vote on the project’s future can be extended as much as seven days. The original deadline was Monday. Tumlin told the Marietta Daily Journal newspaper that a stalemate would be the same as a “no” vote from Oglethorpe.
Georgia Power vs. Oglethorpe Power
Most of Tuesday’s action centered on sparring between Georgia Power, which owns 45.7% of the project, and Oglethorpe, which owns 30%. Oglethorpe on Monday agreed with the other project owners, including MEAG Power (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%), that work at the site in Waynesboro in eastern Georgia should continue. Oglethorpe asked Southern Company—the parent of Georgia Power, and whose subsidiary Southern Nuclear now manages the Vogtle project—to agree that the project’s costs be capped in order to secure Oglethorpe’s continued support.
Georgia Power pushed back on Oglethorpe’s request, starting late Monday when the company issued a statement saying Oglethorpe was trying to “burden others with its obligations and extract unreasonable concessions.”
“Three of the four Vogtle co-owners – representing 70 percent of the ownership – have voted in favor of moving forward with completion of the project,” Georgia Power’s statement said. “In contrast to the decision made by the other three co-owners, Oglethorpe Power has asked for an extension and demanded concessions to avoid obligations that it undertook when it became an owner of the project. All of the remaining co-owners have agreed to the extension in order to allow Oglethorpe Power more time to consider its vote.”
The statement continued: “The project will be canceled to the detriment of the citizens of Georgia if Oglethorpe Power does not vote to move forward under the current ownership structure.”
Oglethorpe, an electric power membership cooperative, responded with a statement of its own, saying in part, “In the face of a misinformation campaign, we want to reaffirm that we hope Plant Vogtle will become a reality and the hardworking people on the project will not lose their jobs. However, we cannot abdicate our duty to our members.”
The statement noted that when Oglethorpe agreed to the current partnership agreement, co-owners were provided the opportunity to challenge budget increases. “So, in seeking to cap costs before agreeing to move forward, we are exercising our co-owner agreed upon rights, which are well known among partners, and are not being obstructionists as Georgia Power has claimed,” the statement said.
Paul Bowers, Georgia Power’s chairman, president, and CEO, in his own statement late Monday said, “We hope Oglethorpe Power joins us in doing what is best for Georgia’s citizens and votes [Tuesday] to fulfill its obligation to complete this project which is critical to Georgia’s energy future.”
Jim Fuller, MEAG Power’s president and CEO, in a news release late Monday said, “The MEAG Power Board voted unanimously to support completion of the project, taking into account the environmental and economic benefits of the project to the state. We are disappointed that Oglethorpe Power has not yet joined us in agreeing to complete the units for the future of Georgia.”
In the same release, Dalton Utilities CEO Tom Bundros said, “Dalton Utilities believes that continuation of the Vogtle Project is in the best interests of its customers. We hope that [Oglethorpe] will realize the benefit of the Vogtle Project to its customers and join us as we move forward.”
$13 Billion Over Budget
The expansion project at Plant Vogtle, which is about half finished with the two new AP1000 reactors now expected to come online in 2021 and 2022, respectively, is about five years behind schedule and more than $13 billion above budget, according to cost estimates from the parties involved outlined in filings with government regulators. Estimates of the project’s cost now top $27 billion, with some estimates as high as $30 billion. (For more on the project’s costs, see “How the Vogtle Nuclear Expansion’s Costs Escalated” and “Vogtle’s Soaring Costs.”)
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson from Georgia in a statement Tuesday afternoon encouraged the companies to reach an agreement to keep the project moving forward. “As someone who has supported Plant Vogtle since its inception and understands the need for us to provide renewable, affordable and safe energy through the completion of this project, I encourage all parties to come together and find a way forward on an agreement to complete this critical project. If we don’t, it will be the end of clean, reliable and safe nuclear power in America.”
The construction at Vogtle is the largest industrial project in Georgia and has employed more than 7,000 workers.
The Plant Vogtle expansion is the only U.S. nuclear power plant project currently under construction. A similar project to add two AP1000 reactors to the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in South Carolina was abandoned last year. Only one new nuclear unit, Unit 2 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Tennessee—POWER’s Top Plant for 2018—has come online in the U.S. since Watts Bar Unit 1 entered service in 1996.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) already has paid the project’s owners $5.6 billion of an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the project. The Trump administration has promised the project an additional $3.7 billion, for a total of $12 billion in DOE funding, if construction continues.
John Sneed, executive director of the DOE Loan Programs Office, in a letter to the project co-owners on September 21 said his agency acknowledges continuing construction is a “commercial decision” but said the owners must realize Vogtle’s “profound impact on the U.S. nuclear industry.” Sneed in his letter said the DOE would move quickly to recover the loans if the project is canceled.
Each of the project co-owners last year presented a unified recommendation to the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to continue construction of Units 3 and 4 at Vogtle after the project was put in limbo by the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the original project manager.
The PSC, which regulates the rates Georgia Power charges, has been in the middle of the debate about Vogtle’s future. The agency’s own analysts in December 2017 said the project was “no longer economic,” but the five PSC commissioners later that month voted to move forward with the project, based on Georgia Power’s agreement to a set of conditions to continue construction.
Georgia Power’s statement late Monday also said, “[I]n recent weeks Oglethorpe Power has continued to demand Southern Company shareholders and ultimately Georgia Power customers accept Oglethorpe’s risk in the project even though all four co-owners fully understood and voluntarily accepted their own risks when they sought to become an owner at the project’s inception. Even though Georgia Power is under no obligation to do so, the company provided several proposals to Oglethorpe Power to help give them additional financial support and certainty for their ratepayers.
“Instead of taking a long-term view, Oglethorpe Power is using the vote to try to burden others with its obligations and extract unreasonable concessions.”
—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).