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The first new nuclear reactor built in the United States in more than 40 years is now up and running in Waynesboro, Georgia. After more than a decade of construction and spiraling costs, Plant Vogtle Unit Three, the first of two new reactors at the site, started producing power at its full capacity in May. It’s expected to come online this month after a final round of tests.
The completion of the new reactors is a major milestone not just for the long-delayed project but for nuclear energy in the United States. The new units at Plant Vogtle were the first nuclear construction approved in decades and are the country’s only new reactors in progress.
Once seen as the future of U.S. nuclear, the story of Vogtle has gotten more complicated as construction has stretched over a decade and costs have continued to climb. Its narrative is still about the promise of carbon-free energy, but it’s also a cautionary tale.
“In a rational world, this would be the last nuclear power project that would be built in the United States,” said University of British Columbia physicist and nuclear skeptic M.V. Ramana.
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the Vogtle construction in 2012, the project was hailed as the dawn of a new nuclear age.
“The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you’ve just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new nuclear reactors,” then-Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told workers at the plant as construction got underway.
In the intervening decade, the climate crisis has accelerated and the need to decarbonize has become ever more urgent, making nuclear power more appealing. Since renewable energy sources are often intermittent — relying on the sun shining or the wind blowing — many see nuclear plants as an important complementary source of power. Each Vogtle reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes without burning fossil fuels.
“As we’re closing coal plants, we have to replace them with something,” said Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols.
That switch can make a big dent in climate-warming emissions. Once both units come online, Georgia’s overall carbon emissions from electricity generation are expected to drop by 5 to 10 percent, according to Georgia Tech professor Marilyn Brown, who tracks the state’s emissions.
“That’s a big number,” she said.
But throughout its decade of construction, the project has also been plagued by cascading delays and climbing costs. The first reactor was scheduled to come online in 2016; it’s hitting that milestone seven years later. The total price tag has more than doubled — to more than $30 billion.
Now, utilities are looking for nuclear projects that would have a more reliable cost and schedule, said John Kotek of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. They’re focusing on smaller reactors that would generate hundreds of megawatts, instead of thousands like the Vogtle reactors.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, the corporation created by New Deal legislation that manages the Tennessee River and provides electricity to Tennessee and surrounding states, has announced plans to build several of these small modular reactors, he said, while Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Rocky Mountain Power, and PacifiCor, have included new nuclear energy in their future plans.
“Part of the motivation for the small modular reactors here in the US is that they come with a lower price tag,” Kotek said. “They’re just physically smaller machines that cost less to build. They’ll take less time to get into operation.”
But critics say that was the promise of Vogtle, too: that it would be a new kind of reactor that’s cheaper and faster to build. Ramana said there’s no reason to think small modular reactors will be different.
“The lesson I think we should learn from this is: What works on the computer doesn’t work in the real world,” he said.
The Plant Vogtle reactors are a design called AP1000, which developer Westinghouse said could be built cheaper and faster thanks in part to modular construction, relying on factory-made components instead of building from scratch on site. But the cost estimate jumped immediately when it came time to actually build, Ramana said, and only climbed from there. All of this was predictable, he said, because similar issues have plagued most other nuclear projects.
In fact, it was predicted at the time. The Public Interest Advocacy staff of the Georgia Public Service Commission warned back in 2008 that the costs could skyrocket. They advocated for a risk-sharing mechanism to incentivize Georgia Power to keep the construction costs down and opposed plans to bill customers for the Vogtle construction while it was underway.
Both proposals failed. Thanks to a 2009 state law, Georgia Power ratepayers are billed a monthly Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery fee. They will begin paying an additional monthly charge when each of the new Plant Vogtle units come online.
“It’s absolutely nonsensical that they are going to have to bear the burden of this gamble with this kind of technology,” said Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Instead of the risk-sharing idea, the Public Service Commission has the ability to review Plant Vogtle costs and exclude any it deems imprudent. Advocates are gearing up for a fight over whether Plant Vogtle’s ever-rising price tag is prudent, once both new reactors are online.
Going forward, Whitfield said there are more cost-effective ways to decarbonize, such as energy efficiency improvements and solar, which is now cheaper than gas, coal, and nuclear.
Proponents see nuclear as a necessary complement to those other renewables, providing what’s known as baseload power all the time — instead of only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But that’s old-fashioned thinking, Ramana said.
“They just want to have coal plants without coal,” he said. “We’ll never solve the climate problem that way.”
Instead, Ramana said, it will require rethinking how we manage the energy grid.
“There’s not going to be a silver-bullet solution,” he said.