|Southern Company's Plant Vogtle in Georgia (AP)|
Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company (as is Alabama Power) announced this week that a nuclear reaction has started inside Unit 3 at the Vogtle Plant near Waynesboro, Georgia, according to a report at CNBC and Associated Press. Readers might be thinking, "Hey, I thought Southern Company was the subject of a complaint to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), claiming the firm's engagement in racketeering activities make it unfit to own or operate a nuclear facility. If that complaint is pending (and it is) why does Southern Company think it has the OK to oversee a nuclear reaction?
You are correct about the NRC Complaint, Dear Readers. Longtime Alabama attorney Donald Watkins and his son, Donald Watkins Jr., led the effort to file the complaint on February 3, roughly seven weeks ago. As for your question, we are not sure what caused Southern Company to seemingly ignore the complaint and proceed with nuclear activities at Vogtle. But we do know this: Southern Company was scheduled to have a meeting with the NRC today in Washington, D.C., and that has been cancelled, according to a report a few minutes ago at banbalch.com, operating under the auspices of the CDLU public charity and advocacy group. Under the headline "Southern Company Chaos as NRC Meeting Abruptly Cancelled; Fanning and Womack in DC; Balch Erased", CEO and Publisher K.B. Forbes writes:
Today’s highly-awaited public meeting of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) discussing Southern Company’s Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant Reactors 3 and 4 has been abruptly cancelled.
This follows numerous formal letters by victims of Southern Company’s criminal RICO enterprise calling on the NRC to investigate Southern Company and revoke their nuclear power plant licenses as a national security threat.
The NRC has acknowledged the letters and is currently reviewing the matters at hand.
Sources claim that both the current Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning and incoming, soon-to-be CEO Chris Womack are in Washington, D.C. now, today, this very moment.
If true, are they meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice in an attempt to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement?
That raises all kinds of questions, including these: (1) Did Southern Company step out of bounds by proceeding with nuclear activities at Plant Vogtle while a complaint challenging its fitness to operate the facility was pending with the NRC? (2) Did that cause the NRC meeting to be cancelled? (3) Will the meeting be rescheduled, and if so, when? (4) Could Southern Company face penalties for an apparent act of negligence by operating a nuclear plant while the NRC was reviewing a complaint against it? (5) Was this more than an act of negligence? Was it a deliberate act, instigated with possible defiance? (If so, could that make any penalties against Southern Company particularly severe?
The answer to question No. 2 appears to be yes. We will address other issues raised in the banbalch.com post in a moment. But first, let's look at what happened earlier this week at Plant Vogtle, per a report from CNBC's Catherine Clifford:
For the first time in almost seven years, a new nuclear reactor has started up in the United States.
On Monday, Georgia Power announced that the Vogtle nuclear reactor Unit 3 has started a nuclear reaction inside the reactor.
Technically, this is called “initial criticality.” It’s when the nuclear fission process starts splitting atoms and generating heat, Georgia Power said in a written announcement.
The heat generated in the nuclear reactor causes water to boil. The resulting steam spins a turbine that’s connected to a generator that creates electricity.
Vogtle’s Unit 3 reactor will be fully in service in May or June, Georgia Power said.
Has the NRC already approved those plans, regardless of the pending complaint? Would that represent a threat to public health and safety? The answers to those questions are not clear, but CNBC provides context for this week's activities at Vogtle:
The last time a nuclear reactor reached the same milestone was almost seven years ago in May 2016 when the Tennessee Valley Authority started splitting atoms at the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in Tennessee, Scott Burnell, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told CNBC.
“This is a truly exciting time as we prepare to bring online a new nuclear unit that will serve our state with clean and emission-free energy for the next 60 to 80 years,” Chris Womack, CEO of Georgia Power, said in a written statement.
Including the newly turned-on Vogtle Unit 3 reactor, there are currently 93 nuclear reactors operating in the United States and, collectively, they generate 20% of the electricity in the country.
Nuclear reactors, which help combat global warming, generate about half of the clean, carbon-free electricity generated in the U.S.
Most of the nuclear power reactors in the United States were constructed between 1970 and 1990, but construction slowed significantly after the accident at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979. From 1979 through 1988, 67 nuclear reactor construction projects were canceled, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
However, because nuclear energy is generated without releasing carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming, the increased sense of urgency in responding to climate change has given nuclear energy a chance at a renaissance.
The cost associated with building nuclear reactors is a major barrier to a potential resurgence in nuclear energy, however. And the new builds at Vogtle have become an epitome of that charge: The construction of the two Vogtle reactors has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.
Meanwhile, K.B. Forbes reports that shuffling of personnel related to Southern Company already was under way as the original date for the NRC meeting approached:
Southern Company foolishly has used the tainted and embattled law firm Balch & Bingham to represent Vogtle before the NRC.
With two former Balch & Bingham attorneys now concurrently under separate criminal convictions, the three other Vogtle co-owners, already upset with Southern over continued and costly delays, have been briefed about Balch and the sentencing of ex-Balch attorney Chase T. Espy for possession of child pornography. Also briefed were Wall Street analysts.
Southern Company chaos was also seen in a third major shuffle of executives at the utility.
This time the management changes took place at Alabama Power with the promotion of four women, including Alexia Borden, who we expect will be the next CEO of Alabama Power after stopgap appointee Jeff Peoples is ousted or forced to retire.
Borden has smartly distanced herself from her former employer, Balch & Bingham, and yesterday’s announcement affirmed the same thing she brilliantly did in 2017, refusing to name Balch, with the announcement saying, “Prior to joining Alabama Power, Borden was a partner with a law firm in Montgomery and Birmingham.”
From prestigious to egregious, Balch is being erased.
Is Southern Company finally getting ready to erase Balch, Matrix, and “Sloppy Joe” Perkins and hand over all the hard evidence as part of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement?
We hope so.
News of the nuclear reaction at Vogtle apparently originated with a report from AP's Jeff Amy. But so far, the story seems to have flown under the radar. Aside from the CNBC report, we have found only four news outlets -- Fortune, The Washington Post, World Nuclear News, and VOA News -- who have picked up the story so far. Fortune has the most detailed report we have seen:
A nuclear power plant in Georgia has begun splitting atoms in one of its two new reactors, Georgia Power said Monday, a key step toward reaching commercial operation at the first new nuclear reactors built from scratch in decades in the United States.
The unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. said operators reached self-sustaining nuclear fission inside the reactor at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta. That makes the intense heat that will be used to produce steam and spin turbines to generate electricity.
A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2009, and the third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016. The company now says Unit 3 could begin commercial operation in May or June.
Unit 4 is projected to begin commercial operation sometime between this November and March 2024.
The cost of the third and fourth reactors was originally supposed to be $14 billion. The reactors are now supposed to cost more than $30 billion. That doesn’t include $3.68 billion that original contractor Westinghouse paid to the owners after going bankrupt, which brings total spending to more than $34 billion.
The latest set of delays at Unit 3 included a pipe part of a critical backup cooling system that was vibrating during startup testing. Construction workers had failed to install supports called for on blueprints. The company has also said it had to repair a slowly dripping valve and diagnose a problem involving water flow through reactor coolant pumps.
Georgia Power said Unit 3 would continue startup testing to show that its cooling system and steam supply system will work at the intense heat and pressure that a nuclear reactor creates. After that, operators are supposed to link the reactor to the electrical grid and gradually raise it to full power.
“We remain focused on safely bringing this unit online, fully addressing any issues and getting it right at every level,” Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power, said in a written statement. “Reaching initial criticality is one of the final steps in the startup process and has required tremendous diligence and attention to detail from our teams.”
Georgia Power owns a minority of the two new reactors. The remaining shares are owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. Oglethorpe and MEAG would sell power to cooperatives and municipal utilities across Georgia, as well as in Jacksonville, Florida, and parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers are already paying part of the financing cost, and state regulators have approved a monthly rate increase of $3.78 a month as soon as the third unit begins generating power. The elected Georgia Public Service Commission will decide later who pays for the remainder of the costs.
Vogtle is the only nuclear plant under construction in the United States. Its costs and delays could deter other utilities from building such plants, even though they generate electricity without releasing climate-changing carbon emissions.
Has any news outlet, aside from this one, mentioned that Southern Company was operating Plant Vogtle while an NRC complaint was pending? We have yet to find one.