Plant Vogtle: Not a Star, but a Tragedy for the People of Georgia

In a recent guest essay entitled “A Star Is Born, as Plant Vogtle Nuclear Expansion Enters Service,” Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols wrote glowingly about Plant Vogtle, the first new reactor to come online in the U.S. in 30 years. He even praised Southern Company for keeping the project going during COVID.

But what didn’t he mention? Ratepayers—you know, customers—the people who are paying the bills. He also failed to mention the length of time it took to build this plant or its costs.

But here’s the truth: At $35 billion, Plant Vogtle is the most expensive power plant ever built on earth. Vogtle’s electricity is estimated to cost $170–$180/MWh, which is astoundingly high. These high costs are why 49 other states decided against building nuclear plants, even with lavish federal subsidies. They pursued far more affordable clean-energy solutions: 2,200 MW of geothermal would have cost just $9 billion, and solar plus storage would have cost between $4 billion and $5 billion, less than a fourth the cost of Vogtle.

Commissioner Echols also praised co-owners, claiming they collaborated with Georgia Power “with dogged determination to finish this project.” But he omitted the litigation in which MEAG—the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia—and Oglethorpe Power sued Georgia Power when cost overruns became extreme, and the JEA (Jacksonville Electric Authority) suit against Georgia Power to cancel its contract for the same reason.

Georgia is one of only four states in the nation with no Consumer Utility Counsel (CUC), an agency designated by most states to act as an independent ratepayer advocate when utility commission decisions are made. The Georgia legislature defunded the CUC in 2008, the year before Plant Vogtle began construction. The loss of this agency cannot be overstated: with no consumer advocate at the commission, Plant Vogtle proceeded with no cost-cap, no consumer protections, and Public Service Commission (PSC) staff were prohibited from conducting analysis comparing the costs of nuclear to clean energy alternatives.

As a result of these missing protections and analysis, Plant Vogtle proceeded to rack up enormous cost overruns with all risk on customers. On August 31, one month after Unit 3 began commercial operation, $2.1 billion will be added to Georgia Power’s rate base.

But that amount is small compared with what’s to come. Once fuel is loaded into Unit 4, expected late summer, Georgia Power will request commission proceedings to recover these cost overruns, expected to be $10 billion. Another $5.68 billion has already been approved and will not be part of the hearing.

Note that the $9 billion to $10 billion in cost overruns is just for Georgia Power’s 45.7% share of the project. When the partners’ share is included, the cost overruns total more than $18 billion. These costs will be paid by the municipal and electric membership cooperative (EMC) utility customers of the partners MEAG and Oglethorpe Power.

Georgia Power executives and Georgia PSC commissioners are making claims that the benefit of Plant Vogtle is clean energy. Commissioner Echols repeated that claim in his essay. But let’s be clear: clean energy wasn’t why Plant Vogtle was built. Georgia has no climate mitigation plan or renewable energy goals it is trying to meet. In July 2022, the Georgia PSC, including Commissioner Echols, voted to authorize Georgia Power to add 2,300 MW of natural gas into its generation mix, even more energy than what Plant Vogtle will add.

The same year that Plant Vogtle began construction, 63 Southern Company lobbyists went to Washington, D.C., to oppose the American Clean Energy Act of 2009, twice as many lobbyists as even the Edison Electric Institute had. Imagine if the U.S. had begun working to accelerate energy efficiency and limit carbon emissions over 13 years ago—would this summer’s searing heatwaves and destructive wildfires be taking place?

It is an extraordinary claim that clean energy is the reason Plant Vogtle was built, given that history. Plant Vogtle was built because Georgia Power is incented to build capital projects. This business model dates to the mid-20th century when America’s grid needed rapid build-out, but it’s an obsolete, counterproductive incentive now. At least 14 states have recognized that and changed how their utilities earn profits by adopting PBR—performance-based ratemaking, which incentivizes performance on metrics such as expanding efficiency and increasing clean energy, rather than building capital projects.

A second reason Plant Vogtle was built is that the Georgia PSC celebrates what it calls a “constructive regulatory relationship” with Georgia Power. The PSC believes that a close relationship benefits all parties, which was easily seen in Commissioner Echols’ essay. But this type of relationship results in unfairly favorable decisions for the regulated utility to the detriment of customers who have no choice in their electricity provider. Being accommodative to a regulated monopoly utility is not the proper role of a regulator.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The beauty of the digital era is that it allows for new and better solutions. Data analytics, grid edge services, and fully funding demand-side management—in addition to cheap renewables like wind and solar coupled with storage, geothermal, virtual power plants, and other flexible load solutions is the grid of the future. Exciting things are still to come with distributed energy and vehicle-to-grid services that electric vehicle (EV) batteries may one day provide. Building large command and control generation sources far from populated areas is far too expensive and no longer appropriate.

People rightfully expect that regulatory officials are working to keep access to lifesaving electricity affordable. When we find that they aren’t, those responsible must be held accountable. One good place to start is creating an independent commission to investigate what happened, serving as the basis for urgently needed reform.


The cost of nuclear is certainly a strike against it… at least in the US. I don’t know if that experience is everywhere. China seems to be able to build nuclear plants and high speed trains, not sure if they are exactly economical, probably the trains are subsidies as well. But US can’t do either reasonable at all. Even this plant looks cheap to the $88B to $128B that is looks to cost to build a high speed rail between SF and LA.

Even the alternatives that they mentioned (geothermal at $4B and solar plus storage between 4-5B0), I doubt that would have been the end cost if that was the decision with those budgets.

More on topic to Nuclear costs…

Yes the nuclear industry was under constant change due to new regulations, new dangers (seismic, tornado, flooding and equipment failures), and more validated engineering design and analysis requirements.

I lived through that period from 1969 - 1972 at Westinghouse and 1972 - 1990 at Bechtel Power Corporation.

IMO the conclusion in the article to too optimistic about small modular reactors or floating nuclear plants being able to solve the cost problems.

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I’m not at all optimistic that any US large scale infrastructure project can be done economically anymore. Be it due to political inefficiency, corporate influence, grift, etc.

I’m not optimistic on small modular reactors either, at least not in the US.

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The high cost of nuclear in the US is no accident. Opponents of nuclear deliberately loaded on every extra cost they could dream up.

It’s a shame our system of government allows these excesses. There ought to be a law!!

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The high cost of nuclear is not limited to the US. Opponents had very little impact on the costs of nuclear since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. That disaster proved the Opponents to be right. Nuclear plants were not design to prevent TMI type accidents. Changes were made to prevent TMI type accidents.

Some would say Jane Fonda’s China Syndrome movie had more to do with the TMI event than other factors. Clearly TMI training was inadequate and needed better operating. But did that TMI plant have faulty welds as in the movie.

Rather than following training, operators followed the movie procedures. Cut off cooling water and let the core overheat.

You have it all wrong. Jane Fonda movie did not have any similarity to TMI except that both plants in the end had core melt.

TMI was caused by the failure to close of a reactor coolant system relief valve on the pressurizer. It caused the coolant reactor coolant system to start losing water slowly. This caused the safety injection system to turn on the emergency water supply. However, this caused the pressurizer go solid (collapse of the steam control bubble). There was no indication that the relief valve was stuck open. The reactor operators have been trained to never let the steam bubble collapse in the pressurizer by their operating procedures developed by the reactor manufacturer (B&W).

To make a long story short, the operators were confused, the reactor supplier (B&W) experts were confused, and the NRC experts were confused. Eventually the operators did turn off the safety injection system but the water level kept going lower.

This small break accident had never been designed for by the reactor manufacturers or postulated by them or the NRC. The reactor core was about half melted when the were able to get water flow back into the reactor via another system to stop the melting.

I can provide NRC documents that detail the whole series of events. However, I think they go above the layman’s head.

Eventually the NRC and the reactor suppliers agree that they must design their plants to recognize and mitigate the consequences of a small loss of coolant accident (LOCA). Before this accident, reactor suppliers designed their plants to recognize and mitigate the consequences of a large loss of coolant accident (LOCA).


Thanks for the clarification, Jaagu. I had seen the PBS program about TMI but didn’t know the details.