The US Secretary of Energy is calling for more nuclear power while celebrating Georgia's $35 billion reactors

WAYNESBORO, Ga. — US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Friday called for the construction of more nuclear reactors in the United States and worldwide. But the CEO of the Georgia utility, which just completed the first two fully self-built U.S. reactors in a generation at a cost of nearly $35 billion, says his company isn't ready to take over yet.

Granholm said in Waynesboro, Ga., where Georgia Power Co. and three other utilities put a second new nuclear reactor into commercial operation last month, the United States needs 98 more reactors with the capacity of Units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle to produce electricity. while reducing climate-changing carbon emissions. Each of the two new reactors could power 500,000 homes and businesses without releasing carbon.

“Now is the time for others to follow their lead to achieve our goal of reaching net zero by 2050,” Granholm said. “We need to at least triple our current nuclear capacity in this country.”

The federal government says it is reducing the risks of nuclear power plant construction, but the $11 billion in cost overruns at Plant Vogtle near Augusta remain sobering for other utilities. Chris Womack is the CEO of Southern Co., the Atlanta-based parent company of Georgia Power. He said he supports Granholm's call for more nuclear power, but added that his company won't build more anytime soon.

“I think the federal government needs to play a leading role in facilitating and making this happen,” Womack said. “We have had a long experience and we are going to celebrate for a while what we have achieved here.”

Friday's event capped a week of festivities in which leaders hailed the reactors as a success, even though they were completed seven years late.

On Wednesday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp floated the idea of ​​a fifth Vogtle reactor. Although Republican Kemp rarely talks about climate change, he has made electric vehicles a priority and said new industries are demanding carbon-free electricity.

“One of the first questions that comes to their mind is: can we provide them with what they need?” Kemp said. “We can confidently say 'Yes!' because of days like today.”

The new Vogtle reactors are currently expected to cost Georgia Power and three other owners $31 billion, according to calculations by The Associated Press. Add in the $3.7 billion that original contractor Westinghouse paid Vogtle owners to walk away from construction, and the total approaches $35 billion.

Electricity customers in Georgia have already paid billions for what may be the most expensive power plant ever built. The federal government helped Vogtle by guaranteeing the repayment of $12 billion in loans, reducing financing costs.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden's administration held a meeting to promote nuclear energy and said it would create a working group to ease the challenges Vogtle faced.

The Biden administration promised that the military would field reactors, which could help reduce costs for others. It also noted support for smaller reactors, suggesting that small reactors could replace coal-fired power plants that are closing. The government also promised to further streamline licensing.

Granholm said she believed others could learn from Vogtle's mistakes, such as starting construction before plans were completed. She also predicted that additional models of the Vogtle reactors, the first of their kind built in the United States, could be built at a lower cost.

“So the question is: how do you learn from the new design in the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth factory? If you don't change the design, it will be 30% cheaper every time you build it,” Granholm said.

In Michigan, where Granholm was a Democratic governor, she announced in March up to $1.5 billion in loans to restart the Palisades nuclear power plant, which closed in 2022 after a previous owner had problems producing electricity that was price competitive.

But with much of the domestic effort focused on building a series of smaller nuclear reactors using mass-produced components, critics question whether they can actually be built more cheaply. Others note that the United States has yet to create a permanent nuclear waste repository that would last thousands of years. Other forms of electricity generation, including solar energy combined with battery storage, are much cheaper to build initially.

In Georgia, almost every electric customer will pay for Vogtle. Georgia Power owns 45.7% of the reactors. Smaller shares are owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., which supplies electricity to member-owned cooperatives, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. Utilities in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as the Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama, have also contracted to buy Vogtle's power.

Regulators in December approved an additional 6% rate increase for Georgia Power's 2.7 million customers to pay $7.56 billion in remaining costs at Vogtle, with the company absorbing $2.6 billion in costs. This is expected to cost the average residential customer an additional $8.97 per month in May, on top of the $5.42 increase that came into effect when Unit 3 went into service.

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