ATLANTA (AP) — A nuclear power plant being built in Georgia can begin loading radioactive fuel into one of its two new reactors, federal regulators said Wednesday, a key step toward generating electricity at the first new nuclear reactor built in decades in the United States.
The Southern Nuclear Operating Co. hopes in October to begin loading fuel into its third reactor at Plant Vogtle, near Waynesboro, Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Nuclear’s parent company, Atlanta-based Southern Co, said last week.
Andrea Veil, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said inspectors “independently verified that Vogtle Unit 3 has been properly built and will protect public health and safety when it transitions to operation.” She said they will keep “a close eye” on the unit moving forward.
A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2012, and the third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016. Now, the schedule calls for that to happen by the end of March 2023. The cost of the third and fourth reactors has climbed from an original cost of $14 billion to more than $30 billion.
The operating company will operate the plant on behalf of owners including fellow Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power Co., Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. Oglethorpe and MEAG would sell power to cooperatives and municipal utilities across Georgia, as well in Jacksonville, Florida, and parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Approval of the third reactor was hung up in recent months because much of its wiring had to be redone after federal regulators found major flaws in it. Southern Co. also had fallen behind on inspection documents that had to be completed before the NRC could sign off.
Fanning and Southern Chief Financial Officer Daniel Tucker said July 28 that before fuel could be loaded, the company also needed to remove scaffolding, temporary lighting and other construction equipment and get the nuclear containment unit into “pristine condition” before loading fuel.
Georgia Power said Thursday that fuel is already on site. After it’s loaded, operators will test to make sure that the reactor can operate at the extreme temperature and pressure needed to split atoms. Once those tests are done, operators will link up the plant to the electrical grid.
Georgia Power customers are already paying part of the financing cost and state regulators have approved a monthly rate increase of $3.78 a month as soon as the third unit begins generating power. But the Georgia Public Service Commission will decide later who pays for the remainder of the costs.
The milestone comes as the other owners of Vogtle seek to shift costs onto Georgia Power. Both Oglethorpe and MEAG sued Georgia Power in June, claiming the company was trying to bilk them out of nearly $700 million by unilaterally changing a contract.
Georgia Power owns 45.7% of the two reactors, compared to Oglethorpe’s 30% and MEAG’s 22.3%. The city of Dalton’s utility owns the remaining 1.6% and hasn’t sued.
Under a 2018 deal, Georgia Power agreed to assume all cost overruns above a certain level. In exchange, the co-owners would sell part of their ownership shares to Georgia Power. Oglethorpe and MEAG say projected overruns have reached that level, but Georgia Power claims the threshold is $1.3 billion higher than the level claimed by the co-owners.
If Georgia Power loses, the shareholders of Southern Co. would most likely have to absorb more losses.
Vogtle is the only nuclear plant under construction in the United States. Its costs and delays could deter other utilities from building such plants, even though they generate electricity without releasing climate-changing carbon emissions.
“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,” Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack said in a statement. “That’s why we’ve been so committed to getting this project done right — it’s about serving our customers today and for decades to come.”