Workers have begun loading radioactive fuel into a second new nuclear reactor in Georgia, the utilities said Thursday. The reactor is expected to start generating electricity in the coming months.
Georgia Power Co. says workers will transport 157 fuel assemblies to the reactor core at the Vogtle plant, southeast of Augusta, over the next few days. Three reactors are already in operation at the plant. Two reactors have been in operation for decades, while the third reactor began commercial operation on July 31 and was the first new nuclear power plant unit built from the ground up in the United States in decades.
This is an important step towards the completion of the two-reactor project, which is seven years late and $17 billion over budget.
Once the fuel is loaded, operators run tests and begin splitting atoms, creating high temperatures that boil steam that drives turbines and generates electricity. The company states that Unit 4 is expected to reach commercial operation by March 2024.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled in July that Unit 4 was ready for fuel deployment.
In Georgia almost every electricity customer will pay for Vogtle. Georgia Power, the largest unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., currently owns 45.7% of the reactors. Smaller interests are owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., which supplies electricity to cooperatives owned by its members, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the City of Dalton. Some utilities in Florida and Alabama have also entered into contracts to purchase Vogtle’s power.
The Associated Press calculates that the owners currently have an estimated $31 billion in capital and financing costs to pay. Add in the $3.7 billion that original contractor Westinghouse paid to Vogtle owners to abandon construction of the reactors, and the total is nearly $35 billion.
Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers are already paying part of the financing cost, as well as a more than $4 monthly rate increase for the third reactor, which will take effect with bills this month.
But the elected five-member Georgia Public Service Commission will later decide who pays the rest of the cost. Regulators have said loading the fourth reactor with fuel will be the trigger to determine whether Georgia Power’s spending decisions were prudent.
That process will determine how much the company’s customers will pay for Vogtle, rather than whether shareholders absorb additional losses. Georgia Power CEO Kim Greene said the company has not yet decided how much it will charge its customers. Southern Co. has written off $3.26 billion in Vogtle losses since 2018, suggesting the company can’t recoup those costs.
The high cost of construction has negated any future benefit of low nuclear fuel costs, experts have repeatedly testified.
The commissioners earlier said they expect $5.7 billion of Georgia’s government spending to be prudent. The company is now expected to spend more than $10.5 billion on construction and $3.5 billion on financing.
At full power of 1,100 megawatts of electricity, each of the two new blocks can supply 500,000 households and companies with electricity. A number of other utilities in Georgia, Florida and Alabama also use the electricity.
Vogtle is important because government officials and some utilities are once again turning to nuclear power to mitigate climate change by generating electricity without burning natural gas, coal and oil. However, the biggest focus in the US right now is on smaller nuclear reactors, giving proponents hope they can be built without the cost and schedule overruns that have plagued Vogtle.