Georgia Nuclear Reactors Delayed Again As Costs Mount

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Power Co. is pushing back the startup date for its two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, saying it's still redoing sloppy construction work and that contractors still aren't meeting deadlines.

The unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. now says the third reactor at Plant Vogtle won't start generating electricity until sometime between July and September of next year. Previously the company said it would start in June at the latest. The fourth reactor won't come online until sometime between April and June of 2023.

The delay will mean more costs for a project already estimated to exceed $27.8 billion overall. Georgia Power, which owns 46% of the project, had already estimated it would spend $9.2 billion, with another $3.2 billion in financing costs.

Besides Georgia Power, most electrical cooperatives and municipal utilities in Georgia own shares of the plants. Also obligated to buy power from Vogtle are Florida’s Jacksonville Electric Authority and some cooperatives and municipal utilities in Alabama.

Southern said Thursday that it would release a new estimate of Vogtle's costs along with quarterly earnings next week. But the amount could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. When Georgia Power announced a delay of three to four months in July, the combined additional cost to all owners was around $1 billion. Southern recorded its entire share of the July costs as a loss to shareholders, but could still ask ratepayers to pay.

The delay could also push back when customers will begin paying a larger share of the plant's costs. The Georgia Public Service Commission plans to vote next month on what could be a $224 million rate increase to pay for $2.1 billion in construction costs on Unit 3. What would be roughly a 3% rate increase for residential customers, or $3.78 a month on a bill of $122.73, is supposed to take effect after Unit 3 goes into commercial operation.

Some consumers have asked the five-member elected Public Service Commission to delay the Vogtle rate increase, citing two other upcoming Georgia Power rate increases.

Georgia Power’s 2.6 million customers have already paid more than $3.5 billion toward the cost of Vogtle units 3 and 4 under an arrangement that’s supposed to hold down borrowing costs. Public Service Commission staff members earlier estimated that the typical customer will have paid $854 in financing costs alone by the time the Vogtle reactors are finished.

In August, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the results of a special inspection that said two sets of electrical cables that are supposed to provide redundancy in Unit 3 weren't properly separated. Earlier, Georgia Power had to repair a leak in Unit 3′s spent fuel pool.

Construction monitors have long criticized the project for sloppy workmanship and unrealistic timelines. Georgia Power’s time and cost estimates continue to converge with the later in-service dates and higher costs that monitors have projected.

The company said in stock market filing Thursday that the latest delay stems from more substandard construction work at Unit 3 that must be redone. It said contractors continue to not meet schedules for completing work. Georgia Power said it’s diverting workers from building Unit 4 to fix Unit 3′s problems.

Georgia Power said for years that Unit 3 would be in commercial operation by November 2021, but has pushed back that deadline three times since May. When approved in 2012, the estimated cost was $14 billion, with the first electricity being generated in 2016.

The company and regulators insist the plant — the first new U.S. reactors in decades — is the best source of clean and reliable energy for Georgia. Opponents have long pointed to what they say would be cheaper, better options, including natural gas or solar generation.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.