Unit 3, one-half of the new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle where the City of Elberton owns vested shares, has reached a key step in its construction status, Georgia Power announced March 6. The third of four units has now reached "initial criticality," according to Georgia Power, that "demonstrates that-for the first time-operators have safely started the nuclear reaction inside the reactor."
"Reaching initial criticality is one of the final steps in the startup process and has required tremendous diligence and attention to detail from our teams," said Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. "We remain focused on safely bringing this unit online, fully addressing any issues and getting it right at every level."
Elberton City Manager Lanier Dunn said the energy created from Plant Vogtle, which provides around 10 percent of the power the city currently needs, is more "dependable" than other energy sources.
"In Georgia we will have reliable and responsible power and it will be emissions free, carbon free and where other states have pushed wind and solar, thankfully Georgia has decided that nuclear is a better option," Elberton City Manager Lanier Dunn said. "That decision was made around 2008 and the market is a lot different now than it was in 2008. With what's referred to as "green energy," they don't respect nuclear. They don't like nuclear because of the question mark of what to do with the radioactive byproduct. I think people should be excited that our energy will be dependable, we won't be at the mercy of the wind blowing or the sun shining, or it getting freezing cold where motors seize up like they did in Texas, and these units will sit there and run for 60 to 80 years."
The city owns its shares in the plant by being one of the 49 members of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG), which owns a collective share of 22.7 percent ownership stake in Plant Vogtle. "The decision to be a part of a new power generation project, is one that's made because you believe that you're going to grow and need that power. So the power will be in your portfolio as opposed to needing electricity to sell," Dunn said about why Elberton got involved with Vogtle. "The goal is for your portfolio of resources to generate the power that you need to sell to your customers, no more no less. There are some other cities that are in bad shape because they are more surplus than we are. They signed up for Vogtle, some of them to meet specific industries that are no longer there. Commerce is a great example. Where we are getting power and say our power is eight cents, theirs may be 12 because when Vogtle comes online, they're going to have all of this excess power and they don't have anybody to sell it to."
While the city may not be in need of the power today as there is already a surplus of the resource in Elberton, Dunn said the Vogtle deal's benefit will become clear in the future as the city's power portfolio changes.
"Demand for power in Elberton peaked in about 2006. With loss of industry and with energy efficiency initiatives, our power sales have been on the decline," Dunn said. "So again the decision on our level of commitment was made in 2008. This is 2023, so this is a 15-yearold decision, but this is going to fit into our portfolio nicely. As this unit is coming online, there is a push by Georgia Power, the EMC's and the cities, to decommission coal plants. As the coal plants are shut down because of environmental requirements, we will have this resource to take their place."
Now that the Unit 3 reactor has reached criticality, operators will continue to raise power to support synchronizing the generator to the electric grid and begin producing electricity. Then, they will continue increasing power through multiple steps, ultimately raising power to 100%.
The work points to an inservice date of May or June, with completion of the second new reactor at the plant south of Augusta - Unit 4 - due a year later.
Commercial operation of the Plant Vogtle expansion has been a long time coming. The Georgia Public Service Commission approved the project 14 years ago at an estimated cost of about $14 billion to be divided between Georgia Power and three utility partners. But the work has hit a series of delays that have put the project seven years behind and driven up the cost to more than twice the original estimate.
The project has been dogged since its inception by criticism from environmental groups and consumer advocates that it's too expensive. Despite the work being so close to completion, opponents continue to call for an alternative approach to expanding the nuclear plant.
"Georgia Power's glacially paced rush to build antiquated nuclear reactors has committed Georgia to a sadly outof-date energy profile," said Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South. "Our state is blessed with abundant wind and solar which can fuel all of our energy needs. It would still be beneficial in the long-run to abandon Plant Vogtle and pursue sustainable, clean energy."
But Georgia Power officials say the Plant Vogtle expansion remains an essential part of the utility's commitment to delivering clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to its 2.7 million customers for the next 60 to 80 years. Once operating, the two new units are expected to power more than 500, 000 homes and businesses.