This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and WABEthe Atlanta NPR station.
The first new nuclear reactor built in the United States in more than 40 years is now operational in Waynesboro, Georgia. After more than a decade of construction and skyrocketing costs, Plant Vogtle’s Unit 3, the first of two new reactors at the site, began generating power at full capacity in May. It should go live this month after a final round of testing.
The completion of the new reactors is a major milestone not only for the long-delayed project, but for nuclear power in the United States. The new units at Plant Vogtle were the first approved nuclear build in decades and are the country’s only new reactors underway.
Once seen as America’s nuclear future, Vogtle’s story has grown more complicated as construction spanned a decade and costs continued to escalate. His story is still about the promise of carbon-free energy, but it’s also a cautionary tale.
“In a rational world, this would be the last nuclear energy project to be built in the United States,” said the physicist and physicist from the University of British Columbia. nuclear skeptic MV Ramana.
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of Vogtle in 2012, the project was hailed as the dawn of a new nuclear era.
“The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry is starting here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new nuclear reactors,” the then-Energy Secretary said. , Stephen Chu, to factory workers as construction began.
In the decade since, the climate crisis has accelerated and the need to decarbonize has become increasingly urgent, making nuclear energy more attractive. Since renewable energy sources are often intermittent – relying on the sun shining or the wind blowing – many see nuclear power plants as an important complementary source of energy. Each Vogtle reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes without burning fossil fuels.
“As we shut down coal-fired plants, we need to replace them with something,” Georgia Civil Service Commissioner Tim Echols said.
This change can make a big dent in global warming emissions. Once the two units come online, Georgia’s overall carbon emissions from power generation are expected to drop 5 to 10 percent, according to Georgia Tech professor Marilyn Brown, who tracks state emissions.
“That’s a big number,” she said.
But throughout its decade of construction, the project has also been plagued by cascading delays and mounting costs. The first reactor was to enter service in 2016; he reached this milestone seven years later. The total price has more than doubled – to over $30 billion.
Now utilities are looking for nuclear projects that would have a more reliable cost and schedule, said John Kotek of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. They are focusing on smaller reactors that would generate hundreds of megawatts, instead of thousands like the Vogtle reactors.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, the corporation created by New Deal legislation that manages the Tennessee River and provides electricity to Tennessee and surrounding states, has announced plans to build several of these small modular reactors, he said. said, while Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCor have included new nuclear power in their future plans.
“Part of the motivation for small modular reactors here in the United States is that they come at a lower price,” Kotek said. “They are simply physically smaller machines that cost less to build. They will take less time to get up and running.
But critics say that was also Vogtle’s promise: that it would be a new type of reactor that was cheaper and faster to build. Ramana said there was no reason to think small modular reactors would be any different.
“The lesson I think we should take from this is this: what works on the computer doesn’t work in the real world,” he said.
The Plant Vogtle reactors are a design called the AP1000, which developer Westinghouse says could be built cheaper and faster thanks in part to modular construction, relying on factory-made components instead of building from scratch on site. . But the cost estimate jumped immediately at the time of construction, Ramana said, and only increased from there. This was all to be expected, he said, as similar issues have plagued most other nuclear projects.
In fact, it was planned at the time. Georgia Public Service Commission public interest advocacy staff warned in 2008 that costs could skyrocket. They advocated for a risk-sharing mechanism to incentivize Georgia Power to reduce construction costs and opposed customer billing plans for Vogtle construction while it was underway.
Both proposals failed. Through a 2009 state law, Georgia Power ratepayers are charged a monthly nuclear construction cost recovery fee. They will start paying additional monthly fees when each of the new Plant Vogtle units go live.
“It’s absolutely absurd that they have to bear the burden of this bet with this type of technology,” said Jennifer Whitfield, senior counsel at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Instead of the idea of risk sharing, the Public Service Commission has the power to review Plant Vogtle’s costs and exclude those it deems reckless. Proponents are preparing to fight over whether Plant Vogtle’s ever-increasing price is prudent once the two new reactors come online.
Going forward, Whitfield said there are more cost-effective ways to decarbonise, such as energy efficiency improvements and solar power, which is now cheaper than gas, coal and nuclear.
Proponents see nuclear as a necessary complement to these other renewables, providing so-called baseload power all the time – instead of only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But that is old-fashioned thinking, Ramana said.
“They just want to have coal-fired plants without coal,” he said. “We will never solve the climate problem this way.”
Instead, Ramana said, there will have to be a rethink of how we manage the energy grid.
“There will be no quick fix,” he said.