• Vogtle 3 nuclear reactor is finally, seriously — for real — online
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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Vogtle 3 nuclear reactor is finally, seriously — for real — online

The beleaguered project is the first U.S. nuclear reactor built in three decades. It comes after six years of delays and a final price tag of over $30 billion.
By Maria Gallucci

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Two concrete cooling towers stand tall against a blue sky with white clouds
Plant Vogtle Unit 3 and Unit 4 cooling towers (Georgia Power)

Georgia Power’s much-anticipated, long-delayed Plant Vogtle Unit 3 nuclear reactor is finally sending electricity to the grid and serving customers across the state.

On Monday, the Atlanta-based utility said the 1,100-megawatt unit had entered commercial operations — making it America’s first newly built nuclear reactor to achieve such a milestone in more than three decades.

A second 1,100 MW reactor, Unit 4, is in the final stages of construction and testing. Operations are slated to start in the late fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2024, according to Georgia Power, which is a subsidiary of Southern Company. At full operations, each unit can power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses with carbon-free electricity.

This project shows just how new nuclear [energy] can and will play a critical role in achieving a clean energy future for the United States,” Chris Womack, president and CEO of Southern Company, said in a statement.

Nuclear power analysts are less convinced that the Vogtle plant expansion — which has been plagued by cost overruns and delays — signals the dawn of a nuclear renaissance. As Canary Media’s Eric Wesoff recently put it, It’s more like the swan song of the conventional nuclear industry in the U.S.”

The project in eastern Georgia has become a glaring example of the challenges associated with building new nuclear reactors. Construction on Units 3 and 4 began in 2009, with plans to bring them online by 2017. Initially, the two reactors were expected to cost $14 billion. Today, six years overdue, the project is slated to cost utility customers over $30 billion, or more than double the original price tag.

As Georgia Power grappled with spending freezes and lawsuits, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office provided up to $12 billion in loan guarantees in 2019 to help complete the project. Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the Vogtle project was key to strengthening national security and rebuilding a highly skilled U.S. nuclear workforce and supply chain for the future.”

Nuclear power provides nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation — a number that’s held flat in recent years as the amount of coal-fired power declined, and as fossil gas, wind and solar resources have climbed. Vogtle’s expansion is expected to account for about 4 percent of new U.S. electricity capacity this year.

Before Vogtle 3 came online, the country had 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors, the average age of which was 40 years old.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued permits for eight more reactors to be built at or near existing plant sites across the country. But none of the projects are expected to be built. Instead, the industry is increasingly betting on small modular reactors” (SMRs) — not hulking conventional power plants like Vogtle — to move forward.

But those projects, while smaller in size, still must overcome significant technical, financial and regulatory hurdles before they can get anywhere close to putting electricity on the grid. As it stands, the parade of companies and research institutions looking to bring SMRs to market are all getting nowhere fast,” according to Wesoff.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.