Nuclear facilities behind schedule

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFebruary 21, 2013 

When major construction started at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project near Augusta and SCANA’s new nuclear reactors near Jenkinsville a year ago, all eyes were on what was supposed to be the rebirth of the nuclear industry after more than a generation without new plants.

The stakes were high for Georgia Power and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., as well as S.C. Electric & Gas and its parent, SCANA, which became responsible for showing the nation that the nuclear industry could build two reactors each without major technical problems, delays or cost overruns. Consumers already were on the hook, paying billions in costs through fees on their monthly utility bills.

The $14 billion Vogtle expansion and nearly $10 billion V.C. Summer project both are behind schedule, and the nuclear revival hasn’t worked out the way the industry had hoped. Ample supplies of cheap natural gas and the sluggish economy are enemies No. 1 and 2. Widespread extraction of natural gas is making it the fuel of choice for utilities, which have little demand for new power plants in a weak economy.

And in August, seven months after granting Southern and Cayce-based SCANA licenses to build from scratch the nation’s first nuclear reactors in 30 years, federal safety regulators put a moratorium on future nuclear projects until a long-term waste storage plan was developed.

For now, utilities store the high-level spent radioactive fuel at their nuclear plants. But the government is under pressure to find a permanent solution for the fuel rods, which are so hot that they must be cooled in water before being moved to hardened casks made from massive steel and concrete. The unexpected roadblock from the federal government left the nuclear industry in limbo and has kept the focus solely on Georgia and South Carolina.

Though Southern Co. officials point to progress that has been made on the Vogtle project, there has been no shortage of controversies.

In South Carolina, SCANA’s nuclear project faces similar challenges. Consumers are paying for the project’s costs as they are spent and then approved by South Carolina utility regulators.

“We believe the project is going as reasonably as can be expected,” said Dukes Scott, executive director of the South Carolina Public Service Commission’s regulatory staff. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to not have some schedule updates and some budget issues.”

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