Anatomy of a mess: the cautionary tale of the US’s last mega nuclear reactor

The expansion of the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Burke County near Augusta, Georgia, stands as the only new atomic reactors built in the US in the last 30 years – and the most expensive power plant ever built on Earth. The story is one of chaos, broken promises, cost overruns and blown deadlines. So off the rails is this fiasco, it is most probably the last large-scale pressurized water reactor that will ever come online in the US – when it finally does. Indeed, no others are currently planned. Paul Hockenos reports.

When, in 2009, Georgia Power and Westinghouse Electric received approval to build the third and fourth reactors of the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, it was the first contract for new nuclear development in the US since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The upgrade, adding 2.5 GW capacity to Vogtle, would make it the largest nuclear generator in the country. The owners pledged that the units would begin producing electricity in 2016 – at a cost of $14 billion – pushing the share of nuclear energy in the nation’s electricity mix to 19%, which is about 8% of US total energy use.

But those initial figures evaporated quickly. Delays, cost recalculations, ownership battles and technical problems – typical of the industry over previous decades, whether in North America or Europe – propelled the starting date to 2023, and then 2024, and costs ballooned to almost $35 billion. Today, local consumers are angry. It is they who will encounter extra costs in their electricity bills, and regional utilities under contract to buy Vogtle’s power are up in arms and fighting legal battles to release them of obligation.

Vogtle: The final nail in the coffin of US nuclear power

From the very beginning, it was clear that Georgia Power ratepayers would be paying a nuclear construction cost recovery tariff on their bills; the other co-owners – Oglethorpe Power Corp., Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities – and their customers would pick up the rest. But as the delays, increases in costs (bureaucratic hurdles, wiring mistakes, redesign of the containment building, investor errors, switching of construction firms and safety issues) and cost recalculations began, this tariff doubled.

This shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock because during the construction of Vogtle’s first two units, the capital investment jumped from an initial estimate of $660 million to $8.9 billion. Moreover, safety issues loomed large, as evidenced in 1990, when the power system of the first two reactors went out and the backup power system failed, leading the plant’s officials to declare a site area emergency. No one was injured, and no radiation escaped.

Originally, Westinghouse, the contractor, agreed to cover most of the cost overruns – a crucial bit of protection for the utilities financing the project. But Bechtel, which took over from the bankrupt Westinghouse, declined to cover cost overruns, leaving the four co-owners and their customers exposed.

JEA (Jacksonville, FL.), one of the regional utilities who contracted to buy power from the new reactors, tried to flee the uncapped purchase-power agreement, contesting it in court. Studies showed that terminating the contract and investing in replacement (renewable) energy sources would save it between $345 million and $727 million. JEA would have been on the hook for construction costs even if the project was never finished. JEA, however, agreed in a settlement that it would pay $3.369 billion in capital costs – and no more.

According to one estimate, if all construction costs for Vogtle are moved into the rate base, Georgia Power bills will increase 20% over 60 years.

The Florida Times Union bemoaned that: ‘The nuclear industry has gone through a dramatic reversal in fortunes over the past decade, and JEA is not alone in dealing with the fallout. Flattening demand for electricity across the industry, the low price of natural gas, the increasing affordability of renewable fuels like solar power and the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan all to some degree played a role in this decline.’

Nevertheless, the US Department of Energy (DOE) seems blind to the writing on the wall. With the passage of the Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act, the DOE is planning to invest in a large-scale demonstration and deployment of nuclear energy technologies over the next decade. Why the DOE continues to cling to the myth that nuclear energy is clean energy, as well as financially feasible, is difficult to fathom. Still, a March 2023 report, much like those issued previously by both Democratic and Republican administrations, claims that nuclear is clean, uses land efficiently, requires less transmission buildout, provides regional economic benefits, and has additional use cases and benefits compared to traditional electricity generation.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *