ATLANTA – Candidates for Georgia’s Public Service Commission grappled over the costs of expanding Plant Vogtle during a debate Friday and split over whether additional nuclear generation is a good idea.
Incumbent Tim Echols said state law requires the commission to pass along to Georgia Power customers expenses that are prudently incurred, so he refused to say whether he would make company shareholders pay for budget overruns at the plant. The panel is planning hearings next year on the issue.
“How can we decide if any decisions were prudent or not until the reactors are working? So, I can’t make a promise that I will allow or disallow anything until I see the evidence,” he said.
The project to add two nuclear reactors, estimated to cost $9 billion, is three years behind schedule and more than 56 percent over budget.
Echols’ two challengers in the Republican primary, Kellie Austin and Michelle Miller, attacked him for his stance.
Austin accused him of breaking campaign promises from his 2010 election because he voted to charge consumers for Vogtle’s finance expenses during construction.
“I voted for you six years ago and knew you for most of my life, and it’s the failure to keep your word on that that caused me to get into this race,” she said.
Miller argued that the overruns on Vogtle make nuclear power too costly compared with other sources. She opposes new nuclear plants, as Georgia Power proposed in its long-range plan that is awaiting approval from the commission. The plan seeks to use customer money to research a new plant in Stewart County for possible construction 15 years from now.
Miller said tougher federal rules on carbon emissions from coal plants should prompt the commission to force Georgia Power to restructure shuttered coal units for burning renewable fuels such as switchgrass.
“I think we should take advantage of this opportunity,” she said, adding that it would also benefit farmers.
Echols said he couldn’t announce his vote ahead of time on the long-range plan until hearings are complete, but he did say a nuclear plant in rural Stewart County would bring local benefits.
“It would help the south Georgia economy,” he said.
Friday’s debate was organized by the Atlanta Press Club and will be available Sunday at gpb.org.
The three candidates are on the May 24 Republican ballot. Though they are required to live in District 2, the election is statewide.