A judge in Fulton County, Georgia ruled on Friday that the state public service commission illegally certified two costly and allegedly faulty nuclear reactors. The ruling could be a setback for attempts to build America's first atomic power plant in 30 years.
The judge, Wendy Shoob of Fulton County Superior Court, said the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) did not provide enough facts to warrant its approval of the project last March. The unexpected ruling from the bench even caught Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the environmental group that filed the lawsuit, by surprise.
"This certainly is a snafu that was not expected," said Sara Barczak, a program director and nuclear specialist with the Knoxville, Tenn.–based SACE.
According to SACE, the near-certain approval of the reactors is "now in jeopardy."
The ruling "puts into question the certification process that happened [at the PSC] last year," Barczak told SolveClimate. Whether it determines the project's long-term fate, however, is "still up in the air," she added.
Bill Edge, spokesperson for the PSC, said he does not believe the project is in danger but cautioned it was too premature to draw conclusions before the written order is issued.
"[Judge Shoob] ruled from the bench, so there's no written order," Edge told SolveClimate. "Any solid comments are probably going to have to wait until we see the written order. Otherwise, it's pretty much speculation."
The date when the order will be issued is still unknown. But Barczak said it could be on a "fairly fast track."
In June 2009, SACE filed its lawsuit against the PSC and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to halt construction of the plants, saying they are too expensive and risky an investment.
But by then the ball was already rolling.
Following the PSC's approval of the projects in March 2009, Gov. Perdue signed the controversal Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act, or Senate Bill 31. The law gives Georgia Power the go-ahead to pre-charge its customers for the reactors as they are getting built.
Come 2011, when the project is expected to break ground, ratepayers will pay an additional $1.30 in monthly electric bills to cover the costs, according to estimates. By 2017, the anticipated date of commercial operation for the first plant, that rate hike will reach $9.10. Certain "industrial" customers would be exempt from the increase.
For SACE, a big problem with the pay-in-advance scheme is that the plants are not a foregone conclusion.
"Ratepayers will not be compensated down the road if the project is cancelled or doesn't receive licensing," said Barczak.
Georgia Power says Senate Bill 31 will result in $300 million in savings to its customers over the life of the plant, while plant construction will create 3,500 jobs.
The units will be added to the existing Vogtle nuclear facility, built in the 1980s, near Waynesboro, Ga., about 170 miles east of Atlanta.
SACE fears a repeat of the nuclear cost explosion that occured at that time.
When the original reactors were being constructed cost estimates were around $660 million for four facilities. In the end, two reactors were built at a price of more than $8 billion.
That caused the "largest rate hike in Georgia" at the time, SACE says.
The costs of the two new plants is estimated at around $14 billion. According to figures from the PSC, Georgia Power's share of the two new units will be $6.113 billion, with the remaining amount to be distributed among other state utilties.
Safety — 'PSC Didn't Properly Explain'
In addition to runaway costs, SACE is also taking aim at potential safety hazards in the untested, next-generation nuclear reactors.
Georgia Power will construct the nation's first AP1000s, designed by nuclear firm Westinghouse Electric Co. The plants, several of which are under construction in China but have yet to be brought online anywhere, are under attack by anti-nuclear advocates who say they are less safe than the current nuclear fleet.
Judge Shoob, says SACE, voiced her own apprehension.
"Among many other issues, the PSC needed to explain why they thought this was a prudent technology when this troubled reactor design, Westinghouse's AP1000, has never even been built anywhere in the world before," said Robert Smiles, co-counsel for SACE.
"The court found that the PSC didn't properly explain."
A long-standing complaint by opponents is with the AP1000's "shield building" structure—the steel dome that covers the reactor to protect it from external shocks. They say it is not strong enough to withstand tornadoes, earthquakes and other forces.
Most recently, a report commissioned by the AP1000 Oversight Group, a coalition of 12 green groups, including SACE, said the design's "containment building" is also flawed. The reactor's so-called 'last line of defense,' the report said, is not sound enough to prevent radiation from leaking out in an accident.
Westinghouse, which is on its 18th revision of the design, maintains the AP1000 is the "the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace."
Currently, 14 AP1000s are under regulatory review at seven sites across the American Southeast. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), overseer of the nation's 104 nuclear plants, has yet to grant a safety clearance for the Westinghouse design. There is still no deadline for when the NRC will give its nod of approval.
Georgia Power, however, declares it will receive approval for its operating license from the NRC in 2011.
In the meantime, Washington is throwing its considerable weight behind the reactor. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced an $8.33 billion loan guarantee to the Georgia facility.
SACE says Judge Shoob's ruling should raise "further concerns" about the loan, the first one to be offered in the nation.
In response to the ruling, Georgia Power said it is moving forward with construction as planned.