Coal, Nuclear, Reactors

Why Georgia Marches on Towards More Nuclear

Issue 10 and Volume 119.

Tim G. Echols, Commissioner, Georgia Public service Commission

While the rest of the nation toggles between natural gas and renewables, Georgia maintains a strong commitment to building new nuclear. Some scratch their head in disbelief, but those who live in this bright red state understand our determination. Let me explain.

First, our state has no major rivers to produce big hydro power. We have no power plants on mine-mouths, natural gas fields, or Hoover Dams. A significant portion of Georgia’s fuel for electricity production has to be transported over 1,000 miles. Yet, our energy prices are still low. Chalk that up to good planning and management by Georgia Power and constructive regulation from the public utility commission—re-elected every six years.

What we do have is nuclear power, and it enjoys widespread support. After all, our state is situated in the Silicon Valley of nuclear. Plant Vogtle is on the Savannah River directly across from the Savannah River Site—210 square miles of all-things-nuclear including reprocessing, storage, five decommissioned reactors, and an Areva-built MOX facility under construction. Just up the road from that is the V.C. Summer plant where SCANA is building two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors just like the ones being built at Plant Vogtle. To the northwest is the Oconee Nuclear Station—a reactor operating since 1973. To the east is Barnwell, the low-level waste storage site in operation since 1971.

So you see, our citizens are familiar with nuclear power and in fact, attribute our low rates to nuclear’s low life cycle cost. The two new 1,100-MW nuclear power units under construction will increase Georgia’s capacity to generate nuclear electricity by more than 50 percent. Once the new zero-emissions nuclear units are in operation they will supply a substantial portion of our state’s baseload generation.

And for those coal haters out there, I have good news. According to retired Georgia Tech engineering professor James Rust, a factor not mentioned in support of nuclear power is its influence on domestic reserves of coal and natural gas. Rust’s research demonstrates that just one of the new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle, if it had been a fossil-unit instead, would consume 230 million tons of coal or 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over its 60-year lifetime. In essence, nuclear power plants extend the life of our fossil fuel reserves far out into the future and reduce future price increases. I guess that is good news for India, China and Germany—who will have the opportunity to buy up cheap American coal.

Nuclear power is the poster child of reliability. It is no accident that Georgia doesn’t experience the blackouts or rolling brownouts as experienced by northeastern states, Texas or California. The Vogtle co-owners, Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG, and the City of Dalton, enjoy the benefits of these reactors operating 24/7 for 18 months at a time—rain, shine, snow, with wind, or without. Remember the polar vortex when the price of natural gas spiked 800 percent in certain northeastern states? Georgia didn’t experience any of that mess. Yet, the equally-reliable Vermont Yankee nuclear plant located in the New England ISO shut down with no objection from President Obama or northern politicians. Go figure.

Understand Georgia politics. The Georgia legislature passed a bill that allows Georgia Power to collect the financing cost of the Vogtle project during construction. The PSC, prior to my arrival, approved a similar measure. Why? Because it reduced the certified costs of the project by $300 million and reduced the company’s borrowing cost by tens of millions of dollars. It also vested the leadership of the legislature. So with all the utilities and many of the politicians investing in Vogtle’s success, the state was “all-in” on new nuclear. The addition of production tax credits, the federal loan guarantee, and the current low-interest cost environment further sweetened the deal.

Then along came the Clean Power Plan. You probably can understand now why we focused so much of our official comments, lobbying, and political capital towards getting full credit for these reactors. The draft plan’s formula shortchanged our state, but when the final plan was issued, new nuclear received favorable treatment making those reactors worth 10 percent of our total compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Both the PSC and Georgia Power had envisioned a carbon-constrained future when they certified the reactors, and that future is now reality.

There are economic and societal concerns about using nuclear power—including concerns regarding the waste. One day I hope to see a commercial reprocessing facility in the aforementioned Silicon Valley of nuclear. I am confident that we will work out a sustainable solution. In the meantime, Georgia and South Carolina will use our competitive advantage of cheap nuclear energy to bring more jobs to our states.