Georgia’s big new nuclear reactors could be the last built in the US

Billions over budget and years behind schedule, the expansion of the Vogtle nuclear power plant signals that conventional nuclear projects are a dying breed.

A large beige and white nuclear reactor facility surrounded by fencing under a cloudy gray sky
(Georgia Power)
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The first new nuclear reactor built in the U.S. in the last 30 years reached a milestone last week that brings it tantalizingly close to syncing up with the electrical grid and generating power for customers. But this is not the dawn of the long-threatened nuclear renaissance — it’s more like the swan song of the conventional nuclear industry in the U.S.

Vogtle 3, one of a pair of 1,100-megawatt nuclear reactors being constructed by Georgia Power (and several other regional utilities), has reached initial criticality,” the utility announced last week. That ominous-sounding phrase means that plant operators have safely started a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction inside the reactor. Atoms are being split, and the heat from that reaction will soon be harnessed to produce steam, power a turbine and generate electricity.

Construction started for the two reactors in 2009, with plans to get them online by 2017, but the project is six years overdue and has cost utility customers well over $30 billion, more than double the original price tag. The Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office provided about $12 billion in loan guarantees to help complete the project against a backdrop of spending freezes and lawsuits.

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The two new reactors are joining two existing ones at Plant Vogtle. When all four reactors are online, it will be the largest nuclear-generating complex in the U.S., surpassing the output of the three-reactor site at Palo Verde, Arizona. The Vogtle expansion entails installing two AP1000 pressurized-water reactors from Westinghouse — the first deployment of that model in the U.S. China already has four AP1000 units in operation and four more under construction.

As Georgia Power tells it, with the Unit 3 reactor reaching criticality, plant operators will increase power to enable the generator to synchronize with the electric grid and ultimately come up to full power. According to the utility, Unit 3 is projected to come into service in May or June of this year. Unit 4 is expected to be placed in service in late 2023 or early 2024.

If and when Georgia’s two new Vogtle reactors become fully operational, they will be the first nuclear reactors to have completed the full licensing process under the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All other reactors in operation began licensing before the NRC opened its doors in 1975.

It’s the end of the reactor as we know it

I asked three experts on nuclear power what would be the next commercial reactors to come online in the U.S.

Vogtle 3 and then Vogtle 4. And then most likely nothing,” said Gregory Jaczko, a former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Unfortunately, no Gen 3+ reactors are scheduled to come online. The next development will most likely come from advanced reactors,’ aka Gen 4,” said the second expert. Advanced reactors, including small modular reactors, are significantly different in design than the Gen 3” light-water design being deployed at Vogtle, employing new sizes, fuels and coolants.

The third expert refused to speculate.

The NRC has issued permits for eight more nuclear reactors to be built at or near existing plant sites in the U.S., but none of these are expected to be completed. Instead, the industry is betting on advanced nuclear reactors to save the day.

It’s a bad bet.

The Idaho National Laboratory has an optimistic timeline for the demonstration and test-bed reactors it expects will power up this decade, but the commercialization path for these experiments is uncertain. The advanced and small modular reactors (SMRs) under development face a raft of economic, regulatory, technological and temporal risks. This will translate to cost overruns, project delays and uneconomic power, with utility customers ultimately left holding the bag at some distant day in the 2030s or 2040s.

The advanced reactor closest to market in the U.S. is being developed by NuScale, which has a nonbinding agreement to build a first-of-its-kind SMR project in Idaho. The company has already raised its projected power cost from $58 per megawatt-hour to $89, even though it’s still years away from even beginning construction. The first module at the plant is set to begin commercial operation in December 2029, NuScale says, but nuclear project timelines are inevitably Pollyannaish and wildly off-base.

NuScale’s regulatory journey with the NRC has been long and arduous, and it’s far from over. Advanced reactors such as TerraPower’s Natrium, which are significantly different in design from existing light-water reactors, face an even steeper regulatory climb. And they’ll have to contend with broken or nonexistent supply chains because the more highly concentrated uranium fuels used by most advanced reactors are currently unavailable in large quantities outside of Russia.

Regardless of rosy messaging from DOE and the industry, it’s almost certain that Vogtle 3 and 4 are going to be the last big nuclear reactors coming online in the U.S. for a long time. 

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.