Contractor bankruptcy looms at Georgia nuclear plant hearing

By Kathleen Foody, Associated Press

Georgia Power executives said Thursday that they're considering all options for the fate of a planned nuclear plant after its main contractor filed for bankruptcy, repeatedly telling state regulators and opposition groups that the project's completion date and total cost are in flux.

 

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Power executives said Thursday that they're considering all options for the fate of a planned nuclear plant after its main contractor filed for bankruptcy, repeatedly telling state regulators and opposition groups that the project's completion date and total cost are in flux.

The sometimes testy hearing opened the latest biannual review by the Georgia Public Service Commission of project costs, focusing on $222 million spent at the site south of Augusta between July and December. The review opened one day before a contract to keep construction going was set to expire, and the contractor's bankruptcy filing loomed large despite admonitions to various questioners of company witnesses to stay focused on the recent expenses.

"I understand we all want to know these things but it's still speculative," Commission Chair Stan Wise said.

The March 29 filing by Westinghouse Electric Co., the U.S. nuclear unit of Japan's Toshiba Corp., raised questions about the future of four nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. Consumer groups that have long opposed the project pressed Georgia Power executives on Thursday about what's likely to happen at Plant Vogtle (VOH'-gohl).

Their reply: We're not sure yet.

Vice President of Nuclear Development David McKinney said the company is considering "all options," including completion of both reactors, cancellation of both or cancellation of one reactor. McKinney and other officials said they will bring a recommendation back to the commission after studying new information made available through the bankruptcy process to figure out what it will cost and how long it could take to finish the project.

"When these assessments are complete, the company will work with this commission and the other Vogtle co-owners to determine the best path forward," McKinney said.

Georgia Power negotiated an interim agreement to keep construction going after the bankruptcy filing, but the first two-week extension of that agreement expires on Friday. Georgia Power could extend it again or let it expire. Thursday's hearing offered no hints.

The first of two new reactors was supposed to start operating in April 2016, with the second following a year later. At the end of March, construction was about 47 percent complete. The completion dates have been pushed back by more than three years over time; the first reactor is now due to start operating in December 2019 and the second in September 2020, according to company filings.

Georgia Power officials said in the hearing that they now doubt those target dates too.

Georgia regulators approved the project in 2009 and by state law, Georgia Power customers will ultimately pay for construction costs unless state regulators intervene and force losses onto the company's shareholders. Consumer advocacy groups fear that various complications, including financial struggles at Toshiba, will continue to raise costs for customers.

"This is a many-layered mess and there's no happy face to put on it," said Robert Searfoss, a 71-year-old from Atlanta who protested outside before the hearing.

The entire project is billions of dollars over its initial estimated cost. Georgia Power, which owns a 46 percent stake in the project, has seen its share of construction costs rise over time from roughly $6.1 billion to $7.7 billion, according to company filings.

The other owners are Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton.

In South Carolina, Westinghouse is a partner with state-owned utility Santee Cooper and publicly traded SCANA Corp. on the construction of two reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station near Jenkinsville. SCANA said in September that the cost of building the reactors had increased nearly $3 billion from the original $11 billion estimate in 2009. The first reactor was supposed to open in 2017, but has been delayed at least two years.

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