Today, a hard look at the double edged sword of the nuclear industry. Right now in the U.S. there are 60 commercially operating nuclear power plants in 30 states. But there’s a problem. This clean source of energy comes with a staggering price tag. One after another planned project has run behind schedule and wildly over budget. Today, there’s only one nuclear reactor project under construction in the US right now kept alive by *billions* in taxpayer dollars. Joce Sterman takes us there to investigate the Nuclear Option.
Every time Steve Prenovitz looks at his monthly power bill—he gets angry.
Steve Prenovitz: Pretty much everything has been passed on to the ratepayer.It's a high stakes game really is. And it's, you know, people getting screwed.
This is the source of his anger: The Vogtle Nuclear Plant in Waynesboro, Georgia - operated by Georgia Power. Crews nearby are working on Vogtle’s two new reactors that have become the face of the industry’s problems in this country. Reactors 3 and 4 are years behind schedule and more than a jaw dropping 10 billion dollars over budget so far. A seemingly bottomless pit supported by federal taxpayers and residents like Prenovitz.
Prenovitz: Right here, you've got the nuclear construction cost recovery.
His bill includes an extra monthly charge for nuclear construction. For an average family it adds up to 100 dollars each year.
Joce: What's the danger of passing on the responsibility and the cost to the rate payer?
Steve Prenovitz: Well the danger for who? For the company? No danger. You know, hey, the more they screw up, the more money they make.
The 14-billion dollar budget has swelled to more than 27 billion as problems have stacked up -- including inexperienced contractors, construction flaws and the bankruptcy of its original contractor: Westinghouse.
But the troubled Vogtle project has a key source of support.
Tim Echols: Why do I believe that this is the best way forward? Because Units 1 and Units 2 were built in 1987 and 1989 on that very same plant site, they went over budget as well, but now what is that? It is the cheapest energy in our state, and I believe Vogtle 3 and 4 will be that one day as well.
Tim Echols is Vice Chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. Even though its own analysts concluded the project was “no longer economic” and suggested it be shut down in 2017, the commission ultimately greenlighted customer fees to keep the project moving.
Tim Echols: It would be irresponsible for me to take all of the billions of dollars that have been spent and just, and just throw in the towel because we happen to be running late. No, we're going to push through.
Joce: Do you have to keep spending and just continue writing checks just to get this thing done and is that a wise way to go about it?
Tim Echols: No, i'll remind them that this elected public service commission will have the final say on what is prudent and it was not prudent. Plant Vogtle's very important because if we fail, if we throw in the towel on this, we essentially cede this technology authority to Russia, to China and to India, which is where the nuclear renaissance is happening right now in the world.
France derives 75% of its energy from nuclear making it a key component of their power grid. China has 13 new reactors in progress. Russia has more than 20.
Katie Tubb says the return on america’s nuclear investments will be worth it.
Katie Tubb: The case for nuclear energy is so compelling that I think at some point, we'll figure out how to do this right.
Tubb is a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. She blames over-regulation for the nuclear failures. One analysis says the average nuclear plant must pay nearly $9 million in regulatory costs and $22 million in fees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Katie Tubb: I think we have essentially regulated ourselves out of the business of nuclear energy. We’ve made it very expensive and difficult to run power plants to innovate.
Meantime, the Vogtle project has now attracted support in the highest of places.
Rick Perry: We’re going to make nuclear cool again!
Federal Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently offered $4 billion in new loan guarantees to see the Vogtle project through.
Rick Perry: The message that gets sent on this plant, America is back in the nuclear energy industry folks! We are back, We’re gonna be leading the world!
With all the enthusiasm, Greg Jackzo insists that continuing to fund the Vogtle Project is throwing good money after bad.
Gregory Jaczko: I was assured repeatedly that these plants would be built on time and on budget.
He once headed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- the powerful federal agency that oversees all nuclear activity in the US. He opposed construction of Vogtle 3 and four.
Gregory Jaczko: I mean, imagine giving somebody $15 billion what they could do with that. Tesla started a car company that is revolutionizing the transportation sector with less money than that. And so you, when you put it in that perspective, it really is a huge amount of money that's just really being wasted on, on these projects.
One notorious nuclear failure - is north of Waynesboro at the VC Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina, which also ran over budget and behind schedule. The plant, owned largely by a corporation called SCANA, was supposed to have 2 new reactors online by last year, also paid for by taxpayers and local electric cusomters.
Ad: Progress has been made on the VC Summer plant. Indeed, nuclear matters!
In 2017, after four years of work - the project was shut down -- after eating up $9 billion a quarter of that from electric customers. Customers sued, and late last year, SCANA agreed to pay them back $2 billion they had been forced to invest into the failed project. From 2007 to 2010, 30 nuclear projects were in design or construction. Every one of them was halted before completion- except Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4.
Jaczko - the former nuclear regulator - now says it’s time for America to face a harsh reality check.
Joce: Do you view nuclear power as essential to our power grid at this point given all the alternatives?
Gregory Jaczko: Not at all. I think we have many, many alternatives.
Joce: Should we pull the plug on it as a whole?
Gregory Jaczko: I think that's a very difficult question to answer. I think the answer is yes; I think the answer is we should have pulled the plug 5 years ago when it was clear this project wasn't going to succeed or 3 years ago when far less money was spent.
For now, the future of nuclear power in the us hangs on Waynesboro Georgia and the fees paid by people like Prenovitz keeping Vogtle’s new reactors on life support. They are now slated to go online in 2021 and 2022 4 years late.
Steve Prenovitz: You spent 10 years, which is true, it started in 2009 - we spent over 10 billion for the whole project- even more - 12 billion. I don’t know. How Much energy was produced? Not one kilowatt hour! As one cynic put it, they promised us power without cost. They gave us cost without power.
Georgia Power did not agree to an interview with us, but in an email, told us it's focused on completing the reactors - and once it's done, the Vogtle Plant will produce enough power for 1 million homes in Georgia.