Southern realizes ‘world is watching’ new Vogtle construction

Southern (NYSE: SO) official Cheri Collins realizes “the world is watching” as subsidiary Georgia Power and its partners build Vogtle Units 3 and 4 near Waynesboro, Ga.

Collins is Southern’s General Manager and External Affairs Liaison for Nuclear Operations and Development. Collins participated in a Sept. 20 webcast on the future of U.S. nuclear power, which also featured Vermont Public Service Department Deputy Commissioner Sarah Hofmann and Nuclear Regulatory Commission member William Ostendorff.

The webcast was sponsored by EnergyBiz magazine, which like GenerationHub, is part of Energy Central.

One thing that all three panelists seemed to agree upon was that the construction of the two new Vogtle units, as well as two new units under construction at the V.C. Summer station in South Carolina, will have an impact on future nuclear projects in the United States. Summer is being built by SCANA (NYSE: SCG) as the majority partner.

All four units were approved by the NRC earlier this year. They are the first nuclear units ordered domestically in the past 30 years and any cost over-runs or project delays could give nuclear power a black eye, the officials agreed.

The “certified” budget for the two new Vogtle units is $14bn with Georgia Power’s share being $6.1 bn, Collins said. “We realize that the world is watching,” Collins said. There have been no cost over-runs to date, she said.

There are currently 2,300 workers involved in the construction effort at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 near Waynesboro, Ga. Several hundred permanent employees will also be involved in operating the two new units.

Vogtle 3 is expected to come online in 2016 and Vogtle 4 in 2017.

Gas, spent fuel, small reactors also on the radar

The participants also seemed to agree that nuclear power’s future will be linked with its ability to compete with domestic natural gas. “Can it compete with gas?” That could probably be “the death knell for nuclear power,” Hofmann said.

Nuclear advocates have pointed to small modular reactors (SMRs) as an option that could potentially enable utilities to incrementally add atomic power in far less than 1,000-MW chunks, which typically require multi-billion-dollar investments.

Ostendorff said he would not be surprised to see one or more SMRs operating domestically by the end of the decade.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) could announce financial incentive awards for a couple of SMRs this fall and the NRC expects to receive its first mini-reactor applications in 2013, Ostendorff said.

If the NRC approves its first SMR applications within three years of submittal, such units might be operating by the end of the decade, Ostendorff said.

On the regulatory front, Ostendorff said the vast majority of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors have either had their original operating licenses renewed for an additional 20 years or have applications for extensions currently under review by NRC.

The state of Vermont has been trying to shut down the Vermont Yankee plant owned by an Entergy (NYSE: ETR) subsidiary, although the plant has received a 20-year extension from NRC.

Certainly, Vermont is in the thick of litigation that could affect the entire country, Hofmann said. The Vermont official said that, unlike the Southeast, nuclear power does not seem to enjoy much popular backing in her state.

Hofmann said Vermont residents have concerns about tritium leaks at Vermont Yankee as well as the state’s often rocky relationship with Entergy.

Hofmann also said the cost of storing nuclear fuel on-site, possibly indefinitely, cannot be ignored.

The legal damages that DOE has been forced to pay nuclear operators and ratepayers for failing to accept spent fuel to date, should be included in the cost of nuclear power, Hofmann said.

“Let’s get beyond wishful thinking” on the future of spent fuel or the industry is doomed to failure, Hofmann said.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.