Georgia Power now has authority to investigate the construction of another nuclear power plant, and that was a good decision on the part of regulators.
There are plenty of reasons to respect the risks of a nuclear plant, financial, environmental and safety. Incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, most recently, Fukushima serve as reminders of the magnitude of mishaps, as well as the budget overruns at Georgia Power’s own Plant Vogtle during its original construction in the 1980s and the ongoing expansion illustrate the financial challenges.
Add to that list the nuclear plants in this country and others that have shut down operations in recent years or are in the process of it because of competition with cheaper natural gas as a fuel for electricity generation.
Tally all of those up, and it makes an argument for the Georgia Public Service Commission to deny Georgia Power’s request to bill electricity customers $99 million for the cost of exploring a new plant in Stewart County below Columbus on the Chattahoochee River.
However, the commission voted 4-1 to give the investigation the green light. The one dissenting vote from Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald had nothing to do with the arguments cited above. A supporter of nuclear power, he simply thinks utilities should put up their shareholders’ funds for probing new revenue streams.
“If this is such a good investment, let their investors make the first investment,” he said.
This panel of commissioners has years of experience and is as well-versed on nuclear power as any in the country after overseeing Plant Vogtle’s two new reactors. Indeed, those reactors are the first to be built in this country in three decades, putting this commission and this utility under an international microscope where every decision is scrutinized by the global industry and environmental community.
In its vote late last month, the commission is reserving the right to ultimately deny construction of the Stewart County plant, even if Georgia Power wants to proceed. And it still hasn’t decided whether to make the company swallow the cost overruns at Plant Vogtle.
The commission isn’t turning its back on renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass. In the same vote in which it approved the investigation of new nuclear, it also required Georgia Power to double the solar generation executives had planned over the next three years.
"Adding renewables and nuclear together makes sense," said Commissioner Tim Echols. "I am committed to keeping rates low and energy plentiful, diverse and clean."
He summed up the thinking of his four colleagues. Nuclear has no carbon emissions, is plentiful, supplies energy on demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, and it is historically very affordable. If the current natural-gas glut disappears as some experts have warned, having a diverse mix of generation sources ensures that Georgians aren’t held hostage to a spike in natural-gas prices.
“Nuclear power remains among the lowest-cost energy sources, with a 92-percent reliability rating, and it is carbon-free,” said Commissioner Stan Wise. “Nuclear deployment takes time, and I refuse to sit on my hands.”
The reason Georgia Power isn’t considering adding future reactors to Plant Vogtle near Augusta is because it’s the western part of the state we live in that has the growth and needs the power. That means we have a stake in this decision.
Preserving the option to build a plant for operations roughly 20 years from now is a sound decision and a vital one to maintaining our area’s long-term prosperity. A better option may come along by then, but closing off options prematurely would have been shortsighted.