Vogtle discussion heat up at Georgia PSC hearing

The Georgia Public Service Commission held a contentious hearing Thursday to review the Plant Vogtle Construction Monitoring Report for the second half of 2016, including an opening salvo of public comment.

 

The construction of Vogtle’s expansion nuclear power generators known as Units 3 and 4 have been under added scrutiny for months. When contract company and reactor designer Westinghouse, American Subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., announced major losses early this year ahead of its third quarter earnings statements, fear of bankruptcy set in.

Those fears were realized March 29, when Westinghouse filed for protections under bankruptcy law. Since then, uncertainty has dominated conversations with the PSC, and even Georgia Power, primary owner and stakeholder in the Vogtle expansion, has responded to inquiries by saying little more than situational analysis is ongoing.

The hearing was designated as a semi-annual approval or disapproval process for expenditures related to the previous construction monitoring report. Thursday’s hearing covered the time between July 1 and December 31, 2016. But questions about the fiscal viability and progress concerns under the Westinghouse bankruptcy heavily influenced questioning.

According to testimony and responses to questions, Georgia Power executives told the PSC the original contractor estimate for construction was $4.4 billion. They also testified that as of the end of 2016, already past the original operational deadline, $3.9 billion had been spent.

Georgia Power told the commissioners that the project was deemed 64 percent complete with all factors included and construction was 42 percent complete in March of last year. Georgia Power said billions more could be incurred before the project is finished. And that doesn’t include considerations for costs related to bankruptcy.

One of the commissioners asked Georgia Power representatives what options were on the table for the project moving forward.

“All options are being considered, including finishing both units, constructing one and not the other, or abandoning both,” a Georgia Power official said.

After recess was called for lunch, commissioners still on the open audio webcast said, “One thing that hasn’t been brought up today is the potential conversion to natural gas. We will have to wait and see what happens when they bring their report to us.”

An interim agreement between the utility owners and Westinghouse was installed immediately following bankruptcy. That 30-day agreement ends Friday. During the hearing Georgia Power told commissioners they haven’t finished analysis yet and expect to do so within 30-35 days; leaving another extension likely. Georgia Power also told commissioners the company spent $50 million on the analysis since March 29.

One of the official cross-examining organizations, Concerned Ratepayers of Georgia, noted construction progress mentioned in the utility company’s testimony was paid for by the monthly bills of Georgia Power customers. Steve Prenovitz of CRG asked the company executives how many setbacks they had during the reporting period because it wasn’t included in testimony. Georgia Power said the contractor fell behind an additional four months, leaving the second set of operational deadlines in 2019 and 2020 unattainable.

Before going into recess for lunch, Lauren McDonald said he wanted to go to lunch and move the speaker to the end of the line so he could “go home later and let one of the other commissioners deal with him.”

McDonald said, “I hate to say this on record, but my 14-year-old grandson could ask better questions.”

The Commission was not any gentler with the public who had a chance to enter their thoughts into record at the beginning of the hearing.

Stephanie Coffin, a member of Atlanta’s Grandmothers for Peace said, “When you’re in a hole, you should stop digging.”

She exhibited a wanted poster depicting all members of the PSC that read “Not one more cent for Vogtle.”

“When I show this to people in public, people who ride the Metro, they are shocked,” she said. “They see all men on the commission.”

Coffin said she wanted to encourage diversity. The commissioners laughed.

“We don’t control the voters, they put us here” Everett said. “This is what they wanted.”

Other public speakers voiced their concerns as well, noting the elderly who have been required to pay for the project for years would never see its completion or receive benefit. They also voiced concerns about nuclear waste storage and future high costs of decommissioning once the plant was too old to operate.

During lunch recess, with the microphones still on, the commissioners debated about whether or not Georgia Power should foot the bill for overages, especially because of their lobbying efforts that passed legislation allowing them to collect from ratepayers for construction upfront.

They also discussed an additional option for moving forward.

Once commissioner said, “It has been brought up today, but there is always the option we might see if Georgia Power wants to convert the units to natural gas.”

It is unclear if an extension to the interim agreement will be reached Friday. Without it, construction could come to a halt, leaving the approximately 6,000 workers on site temporarily out of work.

The PSC will vote to approve or deny construction expenditures during the latter half of 2016 in August, after hearing from staff, witnesses and interveners next month.

Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706)823-3339 or thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com

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