The Georgia Public Service Commission will be deciding this week on whether it supports the continuation of construction of nuclear reactor units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle.
In addition, this decision will determine if Georgia Power and its partners can continue to charge ratepayers for construction costs. This is not an easy decision.
An Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial noted that by stopping the project now, and building replacement natural gas plants, large cost savings can be realized. This is a very shortsighted vision.
This path would put all the proverbial energy eggs in the natural gas basket, and subject Georgia ratepayers to potential fluctuations in future natural gas prices.
From an environmental perspective, our neighbors in Georgia and, indeed, the power grid would lose a reliable, clean energy source that would be operational for 60 to 80 years, and replace it with carbon-emitting natural gas or coal.
Carbon dioxide emissions have increased in both California and Germany over the past few years, as nuclear plants have closed. The Germans and Californians have both realized that increases in solar and wind could not meet their zero-carbon energy demands after the nuclear plant closures, and both significantly increased natural gas use.
To boot, California has some of the highest energy prices in the U.S., while energy prices in Germany are near the top in Europe.
It must be noted that several recent economic factors have made nuclear energy less favorable. The low price of natural gas has caused a shift to more gas-fired power plants. High government subsidies for wind and solar power resulted in an increase in these power generation sources.
The Department of Energy recently released a report on electricity markets and reliability. The overarching conclusion from this report was that many recent regulatory practices were threatening the reliability of the U.S. power grid. Chief among the findings was that economic factors favoring other power sources, combined with the extreme regulatory environment for nuclear, made it an uneven playing field.
After the DOE study was released, the Nuclear Energy Institute concluded, “The U.S. Department of Energy’s electric grid study reaffirms our view that nuclear energy is a key and necessary contributor to a clean, reliable and resilient electric grid.”
The leadership of the United States in nuclear technology is also at an important juncture. China and Russia are actively building new nuclear reactors and marketing reactor technologies around the world. Civil nuclear energy was born in the U.S. after World War II, and it is paramount that the U.S. maintain worldwide leadership for technological and economic reasons.
Thus, for many reasons, it is widely accepted that nuclear is a vital component to the U.S. electricity generation portfolio, especially in the fight to lower carbon emissions.
So, from a strictly “what does it cost today” view, it may seem prudent to discontinue construction of units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle. However, taking a long-range view would indicate that completing the project will provide reliable, cost effective, and environmentally friendly energy for generations to come, and is in the best interest of the region and the nation.
James Marra, PhD
Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness