First US nuclear power plant built this century goes online

Westinghouse's 2017 bankruptcy almost ended the Vogtle 3 reactor

It's more than half a decade late coming online and has cost billions more than estimated, but Georgia Power's Vogtle Unit 3, the first US nuclear reactor built from scratch this century, has finally come online. 

Located near Waynesboro, Georgia, the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant's third reactor will supply an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses in the region with power. Utility companies in Georgia, Florida and Alabama all receive electricity generated by Vogtle's existing reactors, the first two of which came online in the late 1980s, and a fourth power facility is due to come online within the next year. 

"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." said Georgia Power CEO, chairman and president Kim Greene. Georgia Power said its overall energy mixture is now approximately 25 percent nuclear.  

Construction on Vogtle 3, and its sister reactor Vogtle 4, began in 2009, making it the first nuclear reactor built from the ground up this century, but not the first new reactor in the last 23 years. 

That honor belongs to Tennessee-based Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, which brought its second reactor online in 2016. Watts Bar Unit 2 began construction in 1972, but was paused in 1985. Construction wasn't resumed until 2007, and took another nine years to finish. 

With Vogtle 3 online, Georgia Power is now turning to the completion of Vogtle 4, which it believes will be ready late in the fourth quarter of 2023 or early 2024. Once Unit 4 is online, Vogtle's total output will make it the "largest generator of clean energy" in the US, Georgia Power said.

The nuclear power plant that nearly never was

Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are the first pair of Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to come online outside of four units currently being used in China and four additional reactors slated for construction in the Middle Kingdom. 

Given how poorly early attempts to deploy AP1000s in the US went, it's a small wonder Vogtle 3, and eventually 4, are being completed at all. 

Westinghouse Electric Company touts the AP1000 as the "world's first proven Generation III+ pressurized water reactor," but it was also designed with a novel construction concept: using more prefabricated parts that could be constructed in a central location and then assembled on-site. 

While, in theory, this should ensure a standardized reactor design deployable in various locations, Westinghouse's projects at Vogtle and the Virgil C. Summer nuclear power plant in South Carolina ended up contributing to the company's bankruptcy in 2017, the year Vogtle 3 and 4 were originally expected to come online. 

Reuters' investigation of the mess found setbacks from the very beginning, like the use of backfill in Vogtle 3 and 4's foundation pits that failed to meet regulatory approval, causing a six-month delay. Missing paperwork also stalled construction at Vogtle for an additional eight months, it was reported. 

Westinghouse also miscalculated the time it would take to build the modular reactors, Reuters found, eventually costing the company $13 billion in cost overruns. Work on AP1000 reactors at the Summer nuclear power plant was canceled following Westinghouse Electric Co's bankruptcy filing in 2017, something the company is just now emerging after being a buy-out from an investment house and a supplier of uranium.

Rather than throwing in the towel in Georgia, Virginia-based Bechtel was eventually chosen to complete the Vogtle project in Westinghouse's stead.

Many believe that nuclear energy is the most reliable way currently available to decarbonize the world's power generation. The International Energy Agency assessed last year that the world's 2050 carbon emissions goals need nuclear in order to succeed, and that worldwide nuclear output needs to double in the next 27 years to limit global warming to 1.5°C targets.

It's unclear whether those goals can be achieved with officials in countries like the UK, which has set a target of 24 gigawatts of nuclear energy capacity by 2050. The government recently admitted that the planned expansion of nuclear power is more of a wish list than an actual actionable policy. 

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalized a rule allowing small modular reactors manufactured by NuScale to begin commercial production. NuScale's design is the first SMRs to get approval for construction and deployment in the US, and could be used to do things like provide reliable power to remote locations, or supply green energy for datacenters.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are only four SMRs currently in advanced stages of construction, located in Argentina, China and Russia. ®

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