Welcome to Planet Vogtle! The Lessons of Georgia’s Nuclear Boondoggle

Jul 1, 2024 | Uncategorized

A global race is on to see who will host the next nuclear disaster, and as always the U.S.A. is determined to take the lead. On June 18 the Senate passed the so-called ADVANCE Act, pledging billions of taxpayer dollars to the most expensive, inefficient, and toxic form of energy ever devised. Thanks to the $37 billion expansion of Plant Vogtle, Georgia Power ratepayers like me know what that means: record-breaking profits for utility companies, record-breaking power bills for the rest of us.

Lavish federal subsidies under the last four presidents and a grandiose “nuclear renaissance” P.R. campaign have failed to reverse decades of decline for nuclear energy. No surprise – it’s an obsolete, dangerous, and financially untenable technology that no private investor or insurance carrier will touch.

Now, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism” comes galloping to the rescue. A rare bipartisan consensus hails “clean, safe nuclear energy” as the answer to climate change. The 93-page ADVANCE Act – cleverly concealed within the 3-page Fire Grants & Safety Act – delivers the entire wish list of the nuclear industry. Only Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey voted “no.” Liberal icon Sheldon Whitehouse actually helped to draft the legislation.

Calling nuclear power “clean” and “safe” would be laughable if it weren’t such a grim joke. Radioactive contamination plagues it at every step, from carcinogenic uranium mining to routine radionuclide releases at every operating reactor to the mounting backlog of radioactive waste. “Disposal” is a euphemism; the waste will remain deadly to life for tens of thousands of years, longer than the entire history of civilization, with no safe storage option in sight.

Expecting nukes to help slow global warming is equally deluded. The two new reactors at Plant Vogtle – the nation’s first since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 – took 15 years to construct, double the original estimate. We would have to build 1,400 more within ten years to noticeably impact the pace of climate change. Developing untested technologies such as “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors” will take decades longer.

Electricity as a Byproduct of Profit

The ADVANCE Act greases the tracks by eliminating regulatory barriers, essentially transforming the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from a safety watchdog into an industry booster. It curtails the licensing process, downgrades health and safety standards, and promotes the export of nuclear technology. The U.S. can now compete with Russia and China to spread “nuclear waste factories” like Vogtle around the globe.

Not that the NRC ever seriously hindered the industry it is charged to regulate. The new legislation comes amid a nationwide rush to extend the licensing of nuclear plants from their estimated safe lifespan of 40 years to 60, 80, even 100 years, despite the proven tendency of radioactivity to “embrittle” the concrete that shields us from exposure.

Though media coverage of the ADVANCE Act was largely clueless, several outlets quoted a statement by Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Make no mistake: This is not about making the reactor licensing process more efficient, but about weakening safety and security oversight across the board, a longstanding industry goal.”

The only reason utilities are pushing nukes – and the only reason they ever did – is profit. Ever since Eisenhower heralded “the peaceful atom” and the industry promised energy “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power has depended entirely on government subsidies to survive. By far the most costly way to generate electricity, it’s also the most profitable, since We the Taxpayers cover most of the costs, from uranium mining and enrichment to managing nuclear waste to the uninsurable consequences of catastrophic accidents.

Betting on nukes not only wastes irrecoverable time and money; it pre-empts real solutions. Investing the same tax dollars in renewables like solar and wind, energy-efficient retrofits, and upgrading the power grid would displace far more carbon emissions. Renewables already provide more electricity globally than nukes, are far cheaper per kilowatt-hour, and can be expanded much more rapidly while generating exponentially more jobs.

Not to mention sidestepping the risk of another Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island. Factor in the escalating threats of extreme weather and terrorism, declining safety standards, and the industry’s eagerness to sell its radioactive snake-oil to developing nations, and the odds of another deadly meltdown somewhere in the world approach the threshold of inevitability – maybe right here in my home state.

Georgia’s Plant Vogtle: A Cautionary Tale

On the eve of Georgia Power’s triumphant ribbon-cutting for its new reactors, six environmental and consumer groups released “Plant Vogtle: The True Cost of Nuclear Power in the United States,” a 35-page report exposing the political maneuvering and cynical profiteering that made the project a “success.”

The story begins in 2009, when most U.S. utilities had abandoned the “nuclear renaissance” due to plunging natural gas prices, zero growth in energy consumption, and the astronomical cost of nuclear fission. Despite federal loan guarantees, no one was investing – until the Georgia General Assembly solved the problem with a bill allowing Georgia Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company) to charge customers a monthly fee to finance two additional reactors at Plant Vogtle, near Augusta.

Georgia Power’s sales had been flat for two decades and its generating capacity was nearly three times the reserves recommended by the federal agency in charge of our national grid. So why would the company build two expensive, unnecessary new reactors? And why would Georgia’s elected utility regulators, the Public Service Commission, allow it?

“By all appearances,” the report explains, “the Georgia PSC is deep in regulatory capture, a phenomenon where a regulator prioritizes the interests of the companies it regulates (like Georgia Power) over the public good. . . . Since Georgia Power is a monopoly and operates outside of a competitive business market, it can shift risks and costs onto customers if regulator or legislative bodies enable it. That is exactly what the Georgia PSC did.”

Adding as much as 10% to a typical power bill, the fees raised over $4 billion – 88% of it from residential customers, small businesses, even public schools, and only 11% from major industries, thanks to some canny lobbying. The average household ended up paying about $1,000 up-front to subsidize the reactors. The U.S. Treasury contributed a $12 billion low-interest loan, and the rest of the up-front cost came from other lenders. But Georgia law guarantees that ratepayers must cover loan repayment along with Georgia Power’s other costs – which the PSC repeatedly approved as the budget jumped from an initial $14 billion to $21, then $27 billion.

In effect, ratepayers and taxpayers were forced to shoulder the entire investment, while the profits go to Southern Company shareholders.

Milking a Corporate Monopoly to the Max

That same year, South Carolina authorized a similar customer fee to expand its VC Summer plant. Both projects were contracted to Westinghouse. Construction began in 2013, but according to the report, “Cost overruns at both reactor sites began immediately, and by early 2017 were so extreme that Westinghouse declared bankruptcy.” In South Carolina, an investigation led to criminal charges against Westinghouse and utility executives, four of whom went to prison and paid steep fines “for lying about the costs and progress of the project.”

“Similar behavior by Westinghouse and Georgia Power/Southern Company officials occurred in Georgia,” the report goes on, “but there has been no accountability. . . . Commissioners repeatedly accepted Georgia Power’s budget and schedule forecasts in defiance of documented evidence from the Commission’s own staff and consultants that they were materially inaccurate for over ten years.” The Commissioners also praised the company and nuclear power itself with evangelical fervor, violating state regulations that require neutrality in upholding the public interest.

The two reactors ultimately cost over $36.85 billion, making Vogtle “the most expensive power plant ever built on Earth.” But because the PSC approved an exceptionally high rate of “return on equity” (ROE), every cost overrun and construction delay only bolstered Georgia Power’s profits. “Georgia Power was making substantially greater profits from Vogtle 3 and 4’s delay than if it had finished on schedule,” the report says. “Indeed, commissioners allowed Georgia Power to amass a record $17 billion in profits between 2009 and 2023, while allowing $20 billion in cost overruns for Vogtle 3 and 4.”

In December 2023, the PSC voted to saddle ratepayers with $11.1 billion in cost overruns, often caused by shoddy workmanship, inept management, or poor design. Vogtle-related rate increases will eventually total 23.7% – “in stark contrast,” the report points out, “to claims Georgia Power made in 2016 that completing Vogtle units would put ‘downward pressure on rates.’ . . . It is very likely Georgians will soon be paying the highest power bills in the nation due to Plant Vogtle.”

Don’t Try This at Home, Folks!

The report’s conclusion illuminates the fraudulent premises of the ADVANCE Act:

“Fossil fuels and uranium are burned to boil water to produce steam to generate electricity which produces large amounts of waste heat. Renewable energy not only does not produce waste heat, but is more than twice as efficient as steam generated power, thus fossil fuel and nuclear energy can be replaced by less than half as much clean, renewable energy . . .”

“Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and South Dakota produced over 60% of their electricity from renewables in 2023, and ten countries generated 60 to 90% of their electricity from renewables in 2022 including Scotland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Guatemala, among others. California’s output from wind, water and solar power exceeded demand for 30 of 38 days early in 2024 . . .”

“Investments in a clean energy transition would save substantial amounts of ratepayer money, and would quickly meet the reduced greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets the world needs to address the climate crisis. Yet these investments are not made as they are not as profitable for monopoly utilities seeking to maximize profits. . . . An immense transfer of wealth is taking place from the people of Georgia to a rich, powerful monopoly whose only motivation is to maximize profits.”

Don’t let your state be taken in by scammers in suits! Download the full report here.

Full disclosure: I am a board member with Nuclear Watch South, co-producer of the report. Please forward this post far and wide. Non-subscribers can sign up here.

 

 

 

 


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