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PSCs Echols: Its amazing we ever finished the [Vogtle] project at all

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(The Center Square) — Georgia officials on Wednesday marked the opening of Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, making the nuclear plant what officials say is the largest generator of clean energy in the nation.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Georgian as our state continues to grow and thrive, with new demand for more clean energy each year,” Kim Greene, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power, said in a statement. “The new Vogtle units are a key piece of our strategy to meet the energy needs of our customers not only tomorrow, but decades from now.”

The project has been met by critics who say the $35-billion project is a “cautionary tale” for future nuclear construction. Now, six Georgia groups — Center for a Sustainable Coast, Concerned Ratepayers of Georgia, Cool Planet Solutions, GCV Education Fund, Georgia Wand and Nuclear Watch South — have commissioned a new report, “Plant Vogtle: the True Cost of Nuclear Power in the United States.”

Tim Echols, vice-chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, answered questions from The Center Square via email about the Vogtle project.

Generally, what is your response to people who criticize the Vogtle project, with complaints ranging from the price, “grossly underestimating” costs and the delays to allegations that construction management was ineffective and poor quality?

With both units now running at full song and cost issues settled, most critique is moot. For me to vote to build another unit, however, it will require a federal backstop against overruns.

How do you respond to criticisms that the project was unnecessary and too costly — and specifically that it burdens ratepayers with roughly $11.1 billion in overruns? Recognizing no one could have predicted inflation a couple of years ago, don’t the increased costs overly burden Georgians at a difficult time?

The completion of this plant, including the interest, had about a 12% impact on customers’ bills. Most other states have experienced rate impacts too—but Vogtle has had an outsized effect on economic development allowing us to reap additional benefits.

Do you have concerns about the project falling behind its projected timeline?

Given that we survived a tsunami, the pandemic, and the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, it’s amazing we ever finished the project at all. But given the great need for capacity on the grid right now, we are fortunate to have these two units operating.

How does Vogtle benefit Georgians/ratepayers?

With our 26% reserve margin and now two additional reactors online, we are able to say yes to many businesses that other states have to say no to. That means Georgia continues to grow with additional tax revenues and all that comes with that.

I presume you’ve talked to a fair share of critics. How do you change their opinion, or is this an “agree to disagree” situation? Are there any learnings or criticisms of the project in hindsight?

Many people don’t realize we had a very tight fixed and firm contract that was voided by the bankruptcy of Westinghouse. The only way to be protected in the future is with a federal backstop.