SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Overview of Proposed Vogtle Reactors in Georgia
Georgia Water Coalition’s 2015 Dirty Dozen report – more threatening energy projects, update on Vogtle expansion
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (and former Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia & Georgians for Clean Energy) has a long history challenging Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia along the Savannah River. That involvement continues as we challenge the proposed expansion at the state and federal level. Plant Vogtle was one of the last and most costly nuclear plants built in the country. Original estimates for four reactors were $660 million. Eventually, only two reactors were built, reactor units 1 & 2, costing more than $8 billion, resulting at the time in the largest rate hike in Georgia. Unfortunately, Georgia utilities (Southern Company’s subsidiary Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG and Dalton Utilities) are venturing down this water-intensive, costly and risky path again, with plans to build Vogtle reactor units 3 & 4. The original project estimate was $14.1 billion project is now more than 3 years delayed, with reactor unit 3 not estimated to operate until June 2019 and the project is approaching ~$22 billion. Learn more about what you can do to stop this risky proposal by visiting our Take Action page.
State Permitting / Licensing
Before the Public Service Commission: SACE is very active and has been for many, many years at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), consistently advocating for clean, affordable energy choices such as energy efficiency, wind and solar and opposing risky proposals, such as Georgia Power’s current effort to build two more costly reactors at Plant Vogtle. We have raised concerns and intervened since the beginning of the Vogtle expansion project; below is a summary of some of our involvement.
In June 2009, SACE filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members against the PSC and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue that could prevent ratepayers from having to prepay for the proposed Plant Vogtle nuclear reactors. By asking the Court to review the constitutionality of the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act (SB 31) and the legality of the PSC’s approval of Georgia Power’s request to certify additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, SACE took legal action to halt nuclear construction that is too costly and too high-risk for Georgia. Listen by clicking here to Clark Howard’s commentary on SB31 as it was underway during the 2009 state legislative session. Check out our blog that discusses the prepayment scheme in depth.
A hearing was held December 2, 2009 in Fulton County Superior Court and the Judge recused himself from the case. The case was reassigned to Judge Shoob who did not rule on the merits of our case during an April 16, 2010 hearing, but concluded that SACE did not have standing as ratepayers have not yet been harmed, since a rate increase had not yet occurred. We were disappointed by this ruling but remain committed to working to protect ratepayers from the threat of the Vogtle proposal. The second portion of our case was heard on April 30, 2010 and we won! The Judge ruled that the GPSC acted illegally in their approval of the certification of the proposed new Vogtle reactors and a revised certification order was eventually issued.
Since then, much has occurred. SACE was successful in having the unfair pre-payment fee itemized on Georgia Power customers’ electric bills (defined as the “Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery“). Calculate your fee here. However, in spite of these victories, the construction of Plant Vogtle’s proposed new reactors is slowly moving forward but has many hurdles and a long road ahead. A semi-annual Vogtle Construction Monitoring (VCM) docket is being heard at the Georgia PSC and SACE has intervened every time. To track these developments, visit the GPSC website here and enter “29849” in the docket search. In the 8th VCM, the project was approximately 21 months delayed and $737 million over budget pushing the estimated total cost for the project to well over $15 billion with an additional $900+ million in dispute and under litigation between Southern Company and lead contractors. Georgia Power and the PSC reached a settlement agreement during the 8th VCM that postponed the Company’s certified cost increase request until reactor Unit 3 is finished. In October 2013 the PSC approved $209 million in expenditures requested by Georgia Power.
The combined 9th and 10th Vogtle construction monitoring reports were filed by Georgia Power at the end of February 2014 and hearings were held; SACE once again intervened. Find our final brief here. In late August, the Commission approved $389 in expenditures and rejected recommendations from SACE to reduce the Company’s return on equity and measures that could protect the Savannah River from Vogtle’s water-guzzling cooling technology.
The 11th VCM’s $198 million in expenditures was approved by the PSC on February 19, 2015 despite information that shows further schedule delays — now an additional 18-months on top of the already confirmed 21-month delay. In fact, expert witnesses for the PSC stated they cannot even predict when the reactors will operate. With estimated costs of delay at $2 million per day just for Georgia Power’s portion of the project in addition to cost overruns already reported, the $14.1 billion project is closer to $18 billion, possibly more. SACE was successful however in having the environmental monitoring requirements of Vogtle’s surface water withdrawal permit included in subsequent VCM reports. Find SACE’s final brief here and press release that outlined our recommendations to the Commission along with our release once the vote occurred.
The 12th VCM considered an additional $169 million in expenditures and began with Georgia Power asking for the certified cost to be increased and now acknowledged a 39-month delay. Read about the GA PSC’s rejection of the Company’s request to increase the certified cost and amend the project schedule here and learn about the hearings, cost increases and potential further delays, here. The PSC voted on August 18, 2015 and approved Georgia Power’s request, rejecting many common-sense measures that could have provided some protections for consumers and more information on environmental mitigation measures for the Savannah River.
The 13th VCM report requested an additional $148 million in expenditures and was considered just as major news about increasing costs and a significant overhaul to the project’s management was announced in late October 2015. Georgia Power witnesses testified in early November, with little discussion allowed on the project’s major management changes. During the December 10, 2015 – read our press release here and blog (with videos) here – we learned the costs are likely to go up even further as more delays are likely, according to expert witnesses. In February, the PSC unanimously approved the expenditures, but did include some of our recommendations that we included in our final brief that could offer some protections for utility customers.
During the 13th VCM, an unexpected new proceeding was announced based on a motion filed by Commissioner Wise. It appears to be an expedited prudency review of all costs-to-date for the Vogtle project. Read more here. SACE has petitioned to intervene.
Georgia Power filed their 14th VCM report at the end of February and was received approval in August 2016 for an additional $160 million in expenditures. They also admit to further cost increases, now $7.878 billion, up from $7.453 billion just since the 13th VCM.
Also at the state level, SACE and our partners are very concerned about the impacts Vogtle has on the Savannah River, both in terms of water quantity and quality. In fact, the Georgia Water Coalition selected Plant Vogtle as one of the worst offenders for the third year in a row, as announced in the 2014 Dirty Dozen report, along with an update in the 2015 report. The situation will only get worse if the two new Vogtle reactors begin operating–currently estimated for June 2019 for Unit 3, which is unlikely given recent testimony (Unit 4 would be approximately one year later).
We filed comments with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) in March 2014 opposing the massive draft surface water withdrawal permit for the new reactors and requesting a public hearing. We were successful and a public hearing was held in May with additional comments requested. Find all our comments and more in our blog post here. Unfortunately, EPD disregarded the public’s concerns despite receiving over 250 comments, the majority of which urged for EPD to deny or at least delay issuance of the permit. The agency issued the final permit on December 5, 2014 though it was not publicly available until December 9. The State of South Carolina initially challenged the permit, but reached some kind of settlement and the permit is now final.
In mid-January 2015, EPD issued a draft surface water discharge permit (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or “NPDES”) for review and held a public hearing in Augusta on March 3 with public comments due March 20. SACE and our allies are very concerned about the impacts this could have on the already imperiled Savannah River, receiving the 3rd most toxic discharges in the U.S. Find SACE’s comments from the March 3rd hearing in Augusta here and our full group comments filed with EPD on March 20 here. Despite all the objections, EPD issued the final permit in late September 2015.
Vogtle Nuclear Loan Guarantee
SACE has been very concerned about the controversial $8.3 billion nuclear loan guarantee that was offered to the Southern Company, Oglethorpe Power and MEAG for proposed new AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle by President Obama in February 2010. SACE filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Energy (DOE) in March 2010 and a FOIA appeal in May 2010 in order to find out more about these risky, taxpayer-financed loan guarantees and we failed to receive a satisfactory response.
Thus, on August 9, 2010 we filed suit against the DOE and back-and-forth litigation with agency ensued. Read more in this blog post. Then in March 2012, a Court decision was finally announced — ruling in favor of our challenge, ordering DOE to release the credit subsidy fee and giving the agency one more chance to defend why they continue to withhold additional information. We were then victorious and reached a settlement in May 2012 with the Department of Energy, and many documents were released–revealing that taxpayers were still lacking key protections and mismanagement still plagued the DOE’s loan guarantee program.
SACE commissioned an analysis from Synapse Energy Economics and Earth Track to study the documents we received in May 2012 along with more recent October 2012 requests. Find the January 2013 report here along with the supplemental memo. Additionally, we worked to provide an expansive online library of the vast amount of documents we received. Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) shares our concerns, read their summary of the troubled Vogtle project here and find four fact sheets issued in October 2013 here. In September 2013 SACE filed additional FOIA requests to DOE and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in another attempt to determine what risks are posed to taxpayers for this increasingly troubled reactor project.
In January 2014, due to an unsatisfactory response from DOE, SACE filed an administrative appeal. In mid-February, the Energy Department finalized the loan guarantees for Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power, totaling $6.5 billion. But the agency still had not shared the terms and conditions of the loans in order to the public to understand the risks these pose to taxpayers. SACE immediately filed yet another FOIA request and asked for a Congressional investigation. In April 2014, it was revealed that Southern Company and Oglethorpe secured a sweetheart deal — with no credit subsidy fee required. The third partner in the project, MEAG, has yet to have their $1.8 billion loan guarantee finalized and we want to know why given the serious concerns this poses for taxpayers, as highlighted in our blog. MEAG received several more extensions, with the unfortunate finalization in June 2015 — more than five years after the offer was first announce. Read more about nuclear loan guarantees here.
On the federal side, the Early Site Permit was the first step taken by Georgia utilities to obtain federal approval for new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. Southern Company’s nuclear division, Southern Nuclear Operating Company, filed for the permit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in August 2006 on behalf of Plant Vogtle’s co-owners, Georgia Power (a subsidiary of the Southern Company), Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power) and Dalton Utilities. The permit could be used at any time for up to twenty years in any future applications with the NRC.
In 2008, Southern Nuclear also filed a combined construction and operating license application (COL-A) with the NRC. Citizen groups, Atlanta WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions), Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Savannah Riverkeeper and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, legally challenged both permits to stop the building of new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Burke County along the Savannah River. The Emory University School of Law’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic, along with attorney Diane Curran of Washington, D.C., represented the organizations.
The NRC approved the ESP in August 2009. SACE and our partners filed an appeal with the DC Circuit Court in October 2009. In April 2011, SACE and others in the A1000 Oversight Group asked the NRC to halt its fast-track approval process of the AP1000 reactor design. Later that month, SACE joined over 40 other groups challenging the NRC to suspend all reactor licensing and re-licensing proceedings until the NRC conducts a thorough post-Fukushima examination. This affects all reactors currently seeking combined operating licenses, including Vogtle.
In August 2011, we worked with other groups to follow that up with Fukushima-specific contentions for all new reactor proposals, including Vogtle. The NRC has ruled that the petition was “premature.” We appealed that decision. But none of this stopped the NRC from issuing licenses for Vogtle 3 & 4 in early February 2012, with Chairman Jaczko as the sole dissenting vote. SACE and numerous allied organizations continued to challenge the licensing. Then in early April, the NRC denied our motion to stay construction at Vogtle and we immediately filed a stay motion supported by an expert declaration with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Our case was heard on November 19, 2012 and concerned citizens from around Plant Vogtle, such as residents from the Shell Bluff community, packed the room. Unfortunately, in May 2013 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled against us in our effort to slow down the Vogtle nuclear reactor project so that necessary post-Fukushima environmental and safety enhancements could be implemented by the NRC.