|Fig. 1: Plant Vogtle Reactors 1 and 2 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
The history of nuclear power in the United States is a complex one, with plant openings and closings driven by a multitude of factors including market prices (and expectations of prices) for other fuel sources, complex safety regulations, and the ebb and flow of public opinion along with the lawsuits that are apt to ensue. The construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle (see Fig. 1), which would be the first new reactors to come online in the United States during the 21st century, is an illuminating case study in the challenges associated with new nuclear construction. The facility, run by Southern Company's nuclear subsidiary, is located near Waynesboro, GA and is capable of generating 2,430 MW through two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors.  Plans for expansion, which entail the construction of two new Westinghouse AP1000 PWRs, were originally formulated in the early 2000s, when a booming economy along with high coal and natural gas prices made nuclear more competitive.  Moreover, Congress in 2005 passed a package of tax credits, cost-overrun backstops, and federal loan guarantees that galvanized nuclear developers into action.  This bill, along with regulatory changes in Georgia and South Carolina allowing utilities to pass on construction costs to ratepayers while construction remained ongoing, rather than after construction had finished, convinced Southern Co. that an expansion could be a financially attractive option.  At the same time, cultural opposition from environmentalists, once coalesced around the anti-nuke movement, was rapidly shifting to climate change. This meant that many erstwhile environmentalists began to cautiously endorse nuclear as a viable carbon-free alternative energy source. Unfortunately, these favorable conditions were not to last.
Shortly after Southern Company and a Westinghouse-led contracting consortium signed the final construction contract in 2008, the first of what would metastasize into a series of problems became apparent. While Westinghouse originally promoted the new AP1000 reactor design as less likely to suffer the kind of budgetary blowups that had plagued the nuclear construction industry for years, mainly due to the fact that its main components could be pre-fabricated at specialized construction facilities and then shipped to the building site, this was not what happened in practice.  Instead, the pre-fabricated modules suffered from latee delivery and poor construction, issues which were exacerbated by subpar quality control protocols at Westinghouse subsidiaries.  In the wake of these problems, the project was more than $1bn over budget by late 2012.  Over the next five years, more quality control failures at a Westinghouse subsidiary in Louisiana along with a subsequent series of lawsuits between Westinghouse and Southern Company resulted in total cost overruns of $6.7bn by 2017. 
Meanwhile, the propitious governmental attitude toward nuclear expressed by both Congress and state legislatures in the mid-2000s did not translate into an amicable relationship with regulators. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) weighed in a number of times on the design of the reactor, beginning in 2009.  Specifically, the design of the reactor, which called for a containment vessel of 1.2-meter-thick concrete, also situated the reactor core within a building that is open to the sky. This design choice was a conscious one, aimed at allowing for passive cooling of the reactor core via open-air convection in the event of a meltdown, but the NRC blocked construction out of concern that the open-air design required an unacceptable decrease in structural stability.  After substantive modifications were made, including the inclusion of more reinforced steel and sturdier concrete, the design was tentatively approved, but only at significant cost. 
Finally, by 2012 many environmental groups began to sour on nuclear once again in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an influential science advocacy group, has been an especially vociferous critic of the Plant Vogtle Expansion. The main thrust of the critique centers around a poor tradeoff between cost and safety, especially considering that ratepayers have now been on the hook for the botched construction efforts. 
At the end of the day, many of the problems experienced in the construction at Vogtle are due to a vicious cycle; namely, that since few nuclear plants have been built recently in the US, everything from manufacturing to supply chains to regulation has to be done on an ad-hoc basis. Without the economies of scale from frequent construction of these sorts of projects, contractors like Westinghouse must bear the high fixed costs of getting spun up in addition to more insidious costs, like a lack of trained personnel and institutional knowledge atrophy. On the regulatory side, the NRC and state authorities err on the side of caution as few in these agencies have been around for new nuclear plant construction. Unfortunately, until such a time as the economic incentives (both market-based and subsidy-driven) align more favorably for nuclear power, it seems unlikely that the industry will break out of this cycle.
© Cameron Van de Graaf. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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