Long-delayed Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion goes into service


ATLANTA – The first of two new nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle has gone into commercial operation, Georgia Power officials announced Monday.

Unit 3 at the plant south of Augusta went into service early Monday morning, seven years after originally scheduled and at more than double the original cost estimate.

The new unit is the first newly constructed nuclear reactor in the U.S. in more than 30 years and can power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses.

“The Plant Vogtle 3 & 4 nuclear expansion is another incredible example of how Georgia Power is building a reliable and resilient energy future for our state,” said Kim Greene, the Atlanta-based utility’s chairman, president and CEO. “Today’s achievement … marks the first day of the next 60 to 80 years that Vogtle Unit 3 will serve our customers with clean, reliable energy.”

Chris Womack, president and CEO of Georgia Power parent Southern Co., called Monday a “historic day” for the company, for Georgia, and for the energy industry.

“With Unit 3 completed and Unit 4 in the final stages of construction and testing, this project shows just how new nuclear can and will play a critical role in achieving a clean energy future for the United States,” he said.

The second new reactor, Unit 4, is projected to go into commercial operation late this year or early in 2024. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave its final go-ahead for Unit 4, issuing a finding that the new reactor will be operated in conformance with federal regulations.

In light of the delays and cost overruns, the project’s critics for years have been calling on Georgia Power to abandon nuclear power and pursue other options including renewable energy. Last week, a panel of experts told members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) during a hearing that Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers will pay significantly more for the nuclear expansion than if the company had used natural gas.

Georgia Power officials say nuclear energy is the only zero-emission baseload energy source available today, providing high reliability and efficient operations around the clock. The company currently gets 25% of its electrical generating capacity from nuclear power, including the existing units 1 and 2 at Vogtle and Georgia’s other nuclear facility at Plant Hatch in Baxley.

The cost of Georgia Power’s 45% share of the project has risen to $15.2 billion, $9 billion above what the utility projected when the PSC approved the nuclear expansion 14 years ago. As a result, the average residential customer’s bill will increase $14.10 per month during the first five years after the project is completed, up from the $9.60 hike in monthly bills estimated in 2009.

“While capital-intensive and expensive projects may benefit Georgia Power’s shareholders who have enjoyed record profits throughout Vogtle’s beleaguered construction, they are not the least-cost option for Georgians who are feeling the sting of repeated bill increases,” said Bob Sherrier, staff attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Environmental Law Center.

“For customers who have been paying for this project for well over a decade, we hope that Georgia Power and the commission will prioritize proven cost-effective solutions like solar and energy efficiency programs that will help Georgians control energy costs and lower their monthly bills.”  

The other 55% of the project’s costs are being picked up by three utility partners: Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power, and Dalton Utilities.

“Nuclear energy is increasingly important to the clean energy transition, and Oglethorpe Power’s significant ownership in the Vogtle construction project is a testament to the important investments we’re making that drive us toward a cleaner and more sustainable energy future,” Oglethorpe Power President & CEO Mike Smith said Monday.

“We understand the importance of keeping the lights on in a way that preserves both affordability and reliability – and we are proud that the clean energy generated by Unit 3 will help us deliver on that mission for years to come.”

Thomasville showing the way to rural workforce development

TIFTON – Rural Georgia has benefited disproportionately from a wave of unprecedented economic development across the state during the last four years, with more than three-quarters of projects going outside metro Atlanta.

But there’s a downside to the progress: With a statewide unemployment rate of just 3.2%, there aren’t enough workers to fill the 400,000 job openings expected in the next decade.

The small city of Thomasville in Southwest Georgia is doing something about it with an initiative launched in 2019 aimed at a lack of preparedness among students for holding good-paying jobs in today’s workforce and at barriers to work including inadequate child-care options, lack of transportation and a shortage of affordable housing.

The key to Imagine Thomasville has been local political, business, and education leaders connecting with each other rather than staying inside their respective silos, Shelley Zorn, president and CEO of the Thomasville Payroll Development Authority, said July 26 during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Rural Prosperity Summit on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

“What I like about this is we weren’t creating a lot of new programs and services,” Zorn said. “It just helped being in a room and knowing what’s out there. … A lot of good work is going on because we coordinate with each other.”

Zorn’s organization partnered with the Thomasville & Thomas County Chamber of Commerce to start Imagine Thomasville four years ago only to be sidetracked by the pandemic. The work got underway in earnest in 2021 when the organizations hired the Atlanta-based Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE) – a Georgia Chamber affiliate – to conduct a year-long survey of hundreds of local residents.

The results revealed several challenges including the need for better communication among local leaders. Lauren Radford, a local health-insurance broker, was put to work at the head of a committee tasked with improving those relationships.

Radford brought together a diverse cross-section of Thomasville residents in terms of race and socioeconomic status to talk in honest terms about inequality.

“These are uncomfortable conversations, but it’s necessary,” she said. “We are having to establish trust that never existed before. We’re getting there.”

To get at the workforce preparedness issue, it was necessary to focus on education, and the challenges are daunting.

Forty percent of Georgians 25 and older have no credential or degree beyond high school, said Dana Rickman, the GPEE’s president. However, 65% of Georgia adults will need some form of post-secondary credential “of value” by 2033, Rickman said.

Closing that gap between workforce needs and educational achievement will be difficult given the shortage of qualified students.

Currently, of every 100 Georgians who enter high school, 81 will graduate on time, 62 will enroll in some form of higher education within two years of graduating high school, while only 43 will make it through the second year of post-secondary education.

“We’re losing 57% of the pipeline,” Rickman said.

Rickman said early learning is a key to improving those discouraging numbers. But in Thomasville, there’s a shortage of early-care and early-learning opportunities for kids.

Zorn said a survey reported 2,750 children up to the age of 5 in Thomasville but only 1,333 child care spots.

Lisa Billups, executive director of the Thomasville Community Resource Center, is tackling the child-care shortage with a program that involves teaching 2- and 3-year-olds to read at home. Center employees visit families for 30 minutes twice a week for 26 weeks bringing books.

The program started with five families but has grown its capacity to 40. However, 60 families have expressed interest, Billups said.

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” she said.

Billups said one side benefit to the program is it gives the center an opportunity to encourage parents to sign up for GED classes so they can earn at least a high school diploma.

“I believe education is the great equalizer,” she said.

Thomasville City Councilman Mike Chastain said the city is taking on two barriers to employment. A newly founded nonprofit is focusing on housing by providing land and funding, he said.

The city also recently landed a grant of $175,000 to pursue a variety of transportation improvements, Chastain said.

“Government is not the solution, but there are things we can do to have a positive impact,” he said.

Georgia Chamber President and CEO Chris Clark said the good news is not as many young people are leaving rural Georgia for jobs in urban areas as in past years. Members of Generation Z, the latest cohort to begin joining the workforce, tend to be more risk averse than their Millennial elders and, thus, less likely to leave home, he said.

“There’s a light out there,” Clark said. “These workforce issues will be better.”

Georgia Milestones test scores show student progress toward pre-pandemic results

ATLANTA – Georgia students have yet to fully recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, but they’re making steady progress, according to the latest results from the Georgia Milestones tests.

This year’s results, released Friday, showed increases on 13 of 21 assessments. Most of the gains came in English/Language arts and math, and at the elementary and middle-school levels.

Most declines occurred in science and social studies and at the high school level.

Third-grade students scored some of the largest increases, gaining on average three points in English/Language arts over 2022 scores. three points in math, and three points in reading. However, third-grade scores were still three points below the pre-pandemic year of 2019 in English/Language arts, while scores fell seven points in reading and six points in math.

Also, fewer than half of third graders scored at a proficient level in either English/Language arts or math. On the plus side, the third-grade students did better at reading, with 66% scoring proficient or above.

“Even for this year’s third graders, whose entire academic career has been impacted by the pandemic, we can see evidence of growth,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said Friday. “It’s particularly encouraging to see increases in English/Language arts and literacy, especially in the early grades – given all we know about the importance of learning to read and then reading to learn by third grade.”

On the other hand, Georgia Milestones scores continued to drop for 8th-grade students in science and social studies. Only 26% of eighth graders scored as proficient or above in science, down three points from last year and six points from 2019.

Proficiency in social studies among eighth-graders fell to 36% this year, down one point from 2022 and five points from 2019.

The state Department of Education (DOE) is launching several initiatives aimed at addressing those poor results. The agency is hiring 100 certified teachers to serve as virtual tutors in a program set to to start with the upcoming 2023-24 school year.

The DOE will partner with AmeriCorps to provide tutoring for up to 5,000 students at schools identified as in need of tutors and expand the availability of BEACON, which measures students’ progress throughout the school year to allow educators to target instruction.

“There is still work to do,” Woods said. “We will continue to invest in strategies to address lost learning opportunities.”

State Attorney General signs off on Wellstar, Augusta University partnership

ATLANTA – The Georgia Attorney General’s office has approved a planned partnership between the Wellstar and Augusta University health systems first announced late last year.

A Report of Findings released Thursday evening gave the plan regulatory approval to move forward, as is required by a state law governing hospital acquisitions. The boards of Wellstar and the Augusta University Health System (AUHS) signed off on a 40-year agreement in March.

 The partnership will expand the university’s health sciences training and research across the state and build a broader affiliation between Wellstar and Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia.

“The report concluded the pending transaction is consistent with the purposes set out in the law, including that the community will receive an enforceable commitment for fair and reason community benefits, there are no impermissible conflicts of interest and that there are sufficient safeguards to assure access to affordable care moving forward,” University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue, Wellstar President and CEO Candice Saunders, and Augusta University President Brooks Keel wrote in a joint statement.

“While work remains to be done before the transaction is complete, we are working diligently toward the goal of completing the deal this summer.”

In the agreement, Wellstar has committed to investing nearly $800 million over 10 years in AUHS
facilities and infrastructure, including more than $200 million allocated to Augusta University Medical Center, a more than 600-bed safety net and teaching hospital. Additionally, capital for a new hospital, medical office building and ambulatory surgery center in Columbia County will be included in the funding.

The plan has gotten some pushback from state lawmakers representing districts in metro Atlanta, who complained Wellstar’s decision to close the 460-bed Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) last fall combined with the closing of a smaller Wellstar hospital in East Point earlier in 2022 has left a “health-care desert” in majority Black areas of central and southern Fulton County. The NAACP has filed two federal complaints over the decision. 

Wellstar officials countered that they were forced to close the two hospitals due to aging infrastructure, low patient volumes, skyrocketing labor costs and the loss of coronavirus relief funds that had been available earlier in the COVID pandemic.

According to the joint statement from Perdue, Saunders, and Keel, all patients at both Wellstar and AUHS will be able to continue receiving health care at the same sites and through their current insurance plans.

“We look forward to combining the best of community health care and academic medicine to improve quality and safety while driving world-class care advances where Georgians need them most,” the administrators wrote.

PSC expert: Plant Vogtle expansion bad deal for Georgia Power customers


ATLANTA – Years of cost overruns at the nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle have made the project a poor deal for Georgia Power customers, a finance expert with the state Public Service Commission (PSC), said Thursday.

The testimony of Tom Newsome, the PSC’s director of utility finance, at a commission hearing came even as the first of two new nuclear reactors being built at the plant south of Augusta – Unit 3 – is slated to begin commercial operation within a few days.

“Vogtle’s ratepayers will be paying significantly more for the power generated by Vogtle 3 and 4 than they would pay if [natural gas-fired] units had been built instead,” Newsome testified during one of the PSC’s semi-annual progress updates on the nuclear project. “Vogtle 3 and 4 are not an economic benefit to ratepayers.”

Newsome said the cost of Georgia Power’s 45% share of the project has soared to $15.2 billion, $9 billion more than the Atlanta-based utility forecast when the PSC approved the nuclear expansion in 2009. As a result, the average residential customer’s bill will increase $14.10 per month during the first five years after the work is completed, up from the $9.60 hit on monthly bills estimated 14 years ago.

The other 55% of the project’s costs are being picked up by three utility partners: Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power, and Dalton Utilities.

Newsome blamed the overruns on poor management throughout the project, including the period before original lead contractor Westinghouse Electric Corp. went bankrupt and after Southern Nuclear, a sister company of Georgia Power, took over the work in 2017.

Specifically, he said designing and building the two reactors at the same time was not the way to go about such a complex project. There also were labor productivity issues caused by workers essentially getting in each other’s way, he said.

“The people out there trying to get the work done were doing the best they could,” he said. “[But] they just had too many people out there.”

Newsome said many of the same problems encountered with the current project occurred during the 1980s when Georgia Power was building the first two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. The budget on units 1 and 2 ballooned from an original forecast of $660 million to more than $8 billion, and the project took 12 years to complete.

Units 3 and 4 originally were expected to go into service in 2016 and 2017.

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft disagreed with Newsome’s assessment, saying the utility has consistently shown the two new units are economical and will provide an emissions-free source of electrical generation for the next 60 to 80 years.

“Nuclear energy is the only zero-emission baseload energy source available today, offering high reliability, consistently low and stable fuel costs, and efficient operations around the clock,” Kraft said. “Regarding costs, there will be a thorough review and vetting process before the Public Service Commission that will be open and transparent to the public.”

William Jacobs of GDS Associates, an independent construction monitor on the project, testified Thursday that lessons learned during the construction of Unit 3 at Plant Vogtle are being applied to save time on Unit 4, which is expected to go into service early next year.

For example, he said hot functional testing for Unit 4 – when plant systems achieve normal operating pressure and temperature without nuclear fuel in the reactor – was completed during the spring in just 42 days. The same testing on Unit 3 took 94 days, Jacobs said.

“I’m excited,” added Steve Roetger, an analyst with the PSC, referring to the upcoming opening of Unit 3. “This has been a long road.”

Steven Prenovitz of the consumer advocacy group Concerned Ratepayers of Georgia said the commission should not allow Georgia Power to recover Plant Vogtle’s cost overruns from customers.

That decision won’t be made after the Unit 4 reactor goes into service and the PSC holds a “prudency” hearing on the cost issue.