ATLANTA — Georgia Power is about to be in the midst of two hearings in which it will try to justify its judgment on nuclear power.
In one that began last week, it is seeking permission to spend money billed to its customers investigating whether building a new nuclear plant is the best way to generate electricity to meet future demand. In the other, which begins May 3, the company will argue that the cost overruns incurred during the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Burke County resulted from prudent decisions that electricity customers ought to pay for.
Both will require the five-person Public Service Commission to vote in coming months, and each will be a factor in whether the state gets more nuclear power.
The addition of two reactors at Plant Vogtle will make it the largest commercial nuclear plant in the country. Unit 3, which began construction before Unit 4, is the first new commercial reactor built in the U.S. in three decades.
“They are building a new plant under bright-lights scrutiny from the whole world with a design that’s never been built in this country, and no one has had to do that,” said Russ Bell, the director of new plant licensing at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association.
Being the first, it has hit many bumps in the road, as even Georgia Power executives admit. But the lessons of Unit 3 have smoothed the road for Unit 4 and the two units being built by SCANA in South Carolina at Plant Summer.
The executive overseeing the construction of the Vogtle reactors told engineers and utility executives at an international nuclear-construction summit in Atlanta this month that future plant construction will be even less stressful.
“A lot of lessons learned are being captured. A lot of best practices will live on,” said David McKinney, the Southern Nuclear vice president. “I do think that the next units of these passive reactors will be built very efficiently. We’ve had some first-of-its-kind startup issues that you might expect, but I do think that the industry is positioned well to carry that forward.”
When asked about timing, he said the next one should come sooner rather than later.
“Ideally, if you wanted to take the experience and expertise most efficiently from the Vogtle and Summer experience, you would do it immediately after that,” he said.
Georgia Power has bought land for a new nuclear plant next to the Chattahoochee River in Stewart County south of Columbus. The 20-year plan the Public Service Commission is considering includes use of customer funds to evaluate the geology of the site for suitability as well as the general viability of nuclear power as opposed to other sources such as natural gas, coal, wind, solar or biomass.
Special-interest groups are already chiming in, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“With the current challenges and continual cost overruns at Plant Vogtle, SACE is concerned with the potential costs and water impacts and will be asking Georgia Power for justification for these projects,” the advocacy group said in a statement.
On the other side is the Statewide Building Trades Council, the construction unions supplying many of the 5,000 workers assembling Vogtle’s new reactors. Council President Phil McIntyre urged the commission to support another nuclear plant.
“Given the pressure that coal plants face (from federal clean-air regulations), and our union brethren know that best because they have lost their jobs, actions to consider new nuclear seem like reasonable options going forward,” he said.
The company isn’t only considering another giant nuclear plant like Vogtle where each reactor generates 1,100 megawatts of electricity. It’s also weighing small, modular reactors of no more than 300 megawatts.
Because of their smaller size, they can be fabricated more affordably in controlled factories and trucked to a site the size of a shopping center. They also consume less water, produce less nuclear waste and have more safety features.
“When you look at small modular reactors from this view, you ask, why aren’t we building them already?” said Frank Saunders, the vice president of Canada-based Bruce Power, during the nuclear summit.
A major benefit of nuclear power is that it produces no emissions like wind and solar, but it can run nonstop for years, even at night and when the wind isn’t blowing, notes Gary Schwendiman, a former professor and author of The Future of Clean Energy.
Public perception is the sticking point, he said. To illustrate, he recommends an online search for images of “nuclear power” because half of the photos will be of bombs.
“To succeed, this technology must overcome the perception held by the public and news media, and you in the industry have to do the educating,” he told executives at the summit.
Public Service Commission members are all elected. Commissioner Tim Echols is up this year and is facing challengers.