The Georgia Public Service Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved an additional $389 million in expenditures for Georgia Power’s two nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle while at the same time declining a request to require new water conservation measures at the plant.
The expenditure approval, which covered all of 2013, brings the total construction cost verified to date to $2.599 billion.
Georgia Power now predicts Vogtle’s Unit Three will begin commercial operation in late 2017, and Unit Four will begin operation during the fourth quarter of 2018. The original dates were April 1, 2016, and April 1, 2017. The expansion is more than $1 billion over budget.
Georgia Power customers are already paying an additional 9.3 percent — an average of almost $8 a month — in what’s called the Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery Rider that allows the company to begin to recover its costs before the Waynesboro-area plant produces any electricity.
In a press release from the PSC, Commissioner Tim Echols noted, “Not only will this facility produce carbon-free energy for decades, but should the price of natural gas go up substantially, we will have a hedge against increased fuel costs.”
No mention is made of river impacts for the new reactors, which are expected to need upward of 62 million gallons a day of river water for cooling. That’s in addition to the 127 million gallons a day the existing reactors can use. Most of that water doesn’t get returned to the river. Instead, an estimated 71 to 88 percent evaporates into the atmosphere.
For comparison, the city of Savannah takes out a maximum of 55 million gallons a day from the river for drinking water.
Echols said he followed the recommendation of PSC staff regarding water use reduction.
“I trust my staff and very seldom go against their recommendations because they are drilling down into the details,” Echols said.
The Savannah Riverkeeper testified for the monitoring review that the additional pull from the river could and should be avoided with the use of new cooling technology. The riverkeeper made the same argument with similar results to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which has issued a draft water withdrawal permit for the project.
Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus couched the issue in terms of not only environmental protection but also the practical matter of keeping the plant running when the river level is low.
“Reducing the amount of water necessary to cool Units 3 and 4 will mean the facility will be far less vulnerable to any future drought conditions,” she wrote in public comments submitted to the PSC in June. “Several years ago Plant Farley, a nuclear plant in Alabama also operated by Southern Nuclear, had to reduce its generation level and bring in expensive additional portable cooling units because of the dangerously reduced water levels in the Chattahoochee River. By modifying the cooling design of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 now, the long-term operation of all the reactors will be improved and the environmental impact will be significantly reduced.”
The Savannah Riverkeeper teamed with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to put forward information from cooling technology expert Bill Powers, who developed a technical report about ways to safely reduce the water withdrawal needed for the new reactors. He estimates a retrofit that would achieve a 70 percent or better reduction in river water withdrawal would cost about $320 million, or about 2 percent of the projected capital cost.
“We are disappointed though not surprised at today’s decision,” said Sara Barczak, a SACE program director. “Unfortunately the Commission is ignoring the likelihood that Plant Vogtle may not be fully reliable in the future as droughts are likely to occur again, perhaps even more severe and long-lasting than in the recent past. Our recommendations, if implemented, would actually make Vogtle more reliable while reducing the plant’s serious impact on the already very imperiled Savannah River. This would also benefit ratepayers — as the plant would be operational, producing electricity, which ratepayers paid for and expected Vogtle would do.”
The commissioners also rejected a request from SACE, the only consumer watchdog organization that intervened in the construction monitoring docket, to bar the company from collecting any return on equity on the pre-collected portion of the financing costs. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, is the majority owner in the project and is regulated by the PSC.
Echols said barring the company from collecting the return on equity would be a double-edged sword, with savings to consumers negated if Georgia Power’s credit rating were negatively affected.
“I’d rather keep the company healthy and first in line to get better interest rates and better able to finish their projects, rather than crippling them,” he said.