Groups opposed to the first new nuclear reactors to receive a license in the United States in decades have received another chance to get their concerns heard in court, even as construction on the project continues.
Georgia Power, a Southern Company subsidiary, has faced significant cost overruns since first proposing the Plant Vogtle project in 2008. A group of nonprofits, including the Partnership for Southern Equity, Georgia Interfaith Power and Light and Georgia Watch, challenged the decision of the state Public Service Commission (PSC) to let the project proceed despite budget increases to nearly $27 billion, almost double its original price tag.
On Tuesday, the Georgia Court of Appeals sent the group's legal challenge back to a lower court, directing the Fulton County Superior Court to take another look at the case. The groups had contended that the PSC’s December 2017 vote to allow the project was legally and procedurally improper. They also argued that waiting until after the project was completed in 2022 to bring their case would be too late.
"We’ll take the partial victory for now and look forward to making our case in the days ahead," Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the groups, told Utility Dive. "I would love to have another chance to connect the dots for the court."
First since Three Mile Island
The new Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are the first ones approved in the United States since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 cooled Americans’ appetite for expanding nuclear power. Plant Vogtle, currently the country’s only nuclear plant under construction, is considered vital to the fragile U.S. nuclear industry, which has been beset by delays and ballooning costs. Southern took over construction from bankrupt contractor Westinghouse in May 2018.
Georgia Power believes that the PSC’s allowing the Vogtle project to continue "complied with all applicable rules and laws," company spokeswoman Holly Crawford said in a written statement. "The recommendation to move forward with the Vogtle project was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process," she said.
The Partnership for Southern Equity called for greater openness in public decision-making and highlighted the "swelling project budget" in its response to Tuesday’s appeals court decision. "We need fair, transparent decision-making when it comes to future energy needs, especially considering that many Georgia families and communities are already stuck with higher bills because of Georgia Power’s mistakes," Nathaniel Smith, the organization’s chief equity officer, said in a written statement.
With procurement, engineering and initial test plans figured in, the Vogtle project is more than 80% complete, Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Tom Fanning told investors Wednesday on the company’s quarterly earnings call. Construction on Unit 3 is more than 77% finished, and integrated flushing activities have begun on the site, he added.
On Wednesday Southern shares rose 2.3% to their highest point in a year after topping third-quarter earnings estimates. Southern owns nearly half of the Vogtle plant, along with Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).
Meanwhile, last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reprimanded a plant manager for improperly firing an employee who raised safety concerns at the Vogtle site. The NRC said the manager violated the whistleblower’s employee protections by removing him from the site knowing that he had brought up concerns about welding and other safety-related issues.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, speaking on behalf of the Partnership for Southern Equity, declined to discuss safety issues surrounding the project. "Our groups have been focused on the cost overruns and the risks to customers so we are not able to comment on the safety concerns," the group said.
On Wednesday, the NRC also held a brief public meeting to discuss how the public will be able to raise any further safety concerns, including about the inspections, tests and analyses that must verify the reactors have been built safely before nuclear fuel is loaded.
At least three Plant Vogtle worker fatalities have been reported by Georgia news during construction. One worker died last year, while two more were killed Oct. 14, all in car crashes while heading to or from work. The company recently gave $500,000 to the local sheriff’s office to improve safety on the road to the site, which is said to handle more than 3,000 cars per day as shift workers travel to the plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.