WAYNESBORO, Ga. — The cooling towers and hulking containment buildings of the new units at the Alvin W. Vogtle electric plant served as a dramatic backdrop for Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s recent declaration that “it’s time to cash in” and move quickly to build more nuclear plants in the United States.

But the Vogtle plant was a curious choice for a victory lap. When the final reactor went online at the end of April, the expansion was seven years behind schedule and nearly $20 billion over budget. It ultimately cost more than twice as much as promised, with ratepayers footing much of the bill through surcharges and rate hikes.

As the Biden administration seeks to promote cleaner energy to meet its goals for fighting climate change, it is eager to turn around a nuclear power industry hampered by cost overruns, engineering setbacks and major doubts about viability. In her remarks, Granholm said the country must triple its output of nuclear energy by 2050 to meet climate goals, which means adding the equivalent of nearly 100 more Vogtle-size projects.

Administration officials say the country has no choice but to make nuclear power a workable option again. The country is fast running short on electricity, demand for power is surging amid a boom in construction of data centers and manufacturing plants, and a neglected power grid is struggling to accommodate enough new wind and solar power to meet the nation’s needs.

For all its problems, Vogtle is now the largest source of zero-emissions energy in the country.

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“Some first-mover projects are too big, too financially risky,” Granholm said Friday from the podium at the Vogtle party tent, where dignitaries, contractors and union officials gathered to celebrate the completion of one of the most costly infrastructure projects in U.S. history. “But these kind of projects are too important for our nation to fail at.”

Whether the two new units at Vogtle, which bring online enough electricity to power about 1 million homes, are the success Granholm describes is hotly contested. As the administration frames the narrative of the plant as one of perseverance and innovation that clears a path for restoring U.S. nuclear energy dominance, even some longtime boosters of the industry question whether this country will ever again have a vibrant nuclear energy sector.

“It is hard for me to envision state energy regulators signing off on another one of these, given how badly the last ones went,” said Matt Bowen, a nuclear scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, who was an adviser on nuclear energy issues in the Obama administration.

The misfortune at Vogtle was overshadowed only by the calamity that befell another power company across the state line in South Carolina that was building its own Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, the same design used at Vogtle. South Carolina utility SCANA burned through $9 billion before scrapping the project altogether. Federal prosecutors in 2020 would declare that project a cauldron of fraud, securing prison sentences for company officials charged with lying to investors and ratepayers about the viability of completing it on time and on budget.

In Ohio, the former chairman of the utilities commission died by suicide in April following his indictment by state prosecutors in a corruption probe around the bailout of two nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Corp. The two former company executives who were indicted with him in February have pleaded not guilty. FirstEnergy earlier paid a $230 million fine to settle federal charges for its role in the bribery scandal.

The Biden administration is undeterred. It is championing more Vogtle-size projects, as well as trying to step up development of small modular reactors, a new nuclear technology the federal government has been struggling to help move to market for years. The modular reactors aim for nimble designs that would ostensibly be easier to permit and mass produce, while creating less radioactive waste than traditional plants.

“We’ve got to get cracking,” Granholm said in an interview at Vogtle. “Whether it happens through small modular reactors, or AP1000s, or maybe another design out there worthy of consideration, we want to see nuclear built.”

Southern Company executives nodded to the many setbacks the Vogtle expansion encountered but expressed no regrets. “We have proven in the United States that we can do hard things,” said chief executive Chris Womack. “We can build big things. We can build new nuclear plants.”

Georgia is not the only place where nuclear power is getting another look.

The power crunch in California recently forced a rethinking of long-standing plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant on the Central Coast, long a hotbed of anti-nuclear protest. The plant supplies 9 percent of California’s electricity. At the behest of Gov. Gavin Newsom, state regulators in December voted to push its planned closure date from 2025 to 2030. In March, Granholm and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the Energy Department would provide a $1.5 billion loan to restart that state’s Palisades nuclear plant, which was decommissioned in 2022. It would mark the first time a shuttered U.S. nuclear plant has been reactivated.

But in this country with 54 nuclear plants across 28 states, restarting existing reactors and delaying their closure is a lot less complicated than building new ones.

“After what happened in Georgia, it is a hard ask to go to consumers in another location and say: ‘The United States needs to learn how to do this. How about if you foot the bill?’” said John Parsons, an energy economist at MIT.

The same challenge faces developers of small modular reactors.

Plans to build the nation’s first such plant in Idaho fell apart in November as the projected price of power kept spiraling upward. The price shock ultimately forced the small power companies in Utah that had earlier agreed to purchase electricity from the Idaho project to bail.

Administration officials counter that tech companies, with their surging energy needs and commitments to zero-emissions energy, are changing the equation. They point to nascent agreements with both big utilities and small nuclear power start-ups through which the tech firms are aiming to bankroll some of the infrastructure construction themselves, shielding other ratepayers and utility investors from financial risk. Duke Energy is collaborating with Amazon, Google, Microsoft and the steel company Nucor on one such agreement that the firm is hoping will propel nuclear development. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But Parsons and other experts say jump-starting the nuclear industry will also require a big new infusion of federal cash, potentially in the tens of billions of dollars. That is a heavy political lift after lawmakers have already approved subsidies and incentives for nuclear developers that Granholm said can cover as much as half the cost of a plant.

Many proponents of wind and solar — as well as natural gas and even coal power — are fiercely opposed to further nuclear subsidies, arguing it is throwing good money after bad at a time other types of clean power can already be made more cheaply and without radioactive waste.

“The nuclear industry has this huge public relations campaign that says only it can meet the demand for clean energy,” said Patty Durand, a consumer advocate and a candidate for the Georgia board that regulates utilities. “But it is just not true.”

But the United States, the birthplace of the nuclear energy industry, is fast losing its dominance over it. China currently has 21 reactors under construction. India has eight large reactors under construction. South Korea has been steadily building new nuclear plants and is on a path to generate nearly a third of its energy from nuclear power by the end of the decade. (Nuclear currently accounts for 19 percent of the U.S. power supply.)

There are 19 AP1000 reactors, the design used at Vogtle, in development around the world. None of them are being built in the United States.



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