Environmental and faith-based groups are challenging the Georgia Public Service Commission’s decision that allowed Georgia Power and its partners to continue work on two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, saying the commission should have used a more exhaustive and thorough review and had improper communications with the company.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the petition on behalf of two groups, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light, Inc. and Partnership for Southern Equity, in Fulton County Superior Court asking for judicial review of the commission’s decision and for oral arguments. The commission has at least 30 days to respond and a spokesman said he had not seen the filing yet. The filing is against the commission but Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said its decision in the Vogtle case was legal.
“We believe the decision by the Georgia PSC to continue the Vogtle project was well within its authority and complied with all applicable laws,” he said.
The groups are challenging a Dec. 21 unanimous decision by the commission to allow work to continue on the project, which has been long delayed and is substantially over budget. It became a final decision on Jan. 11 when it was filed and the commission on Feb. 1 unanimously rejected a request by opponents to reconsider its decision.
In its new filing, the groups point out that what began as a project that was to cost Georgia Power a total of $6.1 billion has with the commission’s decision become a $10.7 billion project for its share, which is 45.7 percent. The other partners, Oglethorpe Power, Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities, are not regulated by the PSC and do not publicly report their costs. Reactors that were to come online in 2016 and 2017 are now scheduled to start in November 2021 and November 2022, according to the petition. The groups contend those delays will allow Georgia Power an extra $5 billion in profit on the project.
The commission certified the project at the original costs in 2009 and should have required Georgia Power to file an amended certification application if the costs increased by more than 5 percent, much less the 75 percent or more as it stands now, said Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney with Southern Environmental Law. That would have required the company to also file an amended Integrated Resource Plan that showed how the new reactors would meet the projected demand over the next 20 years and also require the company to compare that to potentially cheaper alternatives to meet that demand, such as greater energy conservation or other power generation such as solar, he said.
While there was some limited economic analysis of alternatives included in the company’s filing to proceed, the resource plan would have made it harder for the company to make the “qualitative dismissal” of those alternatives that it made in its filing, Ebersbach said. The lengthier process would have allowed the commission’s staff more resources to analyze the request and alternatives and also would have given the commissioners more time and a better opportunity to “make an informed decision,” he said.
The groups also contend that the commissioners violated their own rules against having ex parte conversations, or conversations where not all parties are informed of or allowed to participate, with Georgia Power both before the Dec. 21 hearing and after. After the Dec. 21 hearing, Commissioner Tim Echols, who drew up the motion that set conditions for Georgia Power to proceed, said he had run some of those conditions past Georgia Power prior to the vote.
“I’m not sure that Georgia Power or the commission would deny having those conversations,” Ebersbach said. While most of the time appeals of this sort are limited to the facts on record, he said the group would ask for hearings to try and explore some of these issues.
Judicial reviews of a state agency decision typically have to be filed with the Fulton County court and often face an uphill battle because “the court is not supposed to substitute its judgment for the agency,” Ebersbach said. But in this case, by questioning the decision on a legal basis “there’s a better chance than on questions of fact,” he said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213