Energy chief wants to triple nuclear, Georgia Gov. supports 5th Vogtle unit

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Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Friday the U.S. needs to triple its nuclear capacity to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of net-zero emission by 2050.

Granholm made the comments in Waynesboro, Georgia, where she joined a host of public officials celebrating the commercial start of the Unit 4 nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle. The reactor is one of two that began construction in 2009 at Plant Vogtle. Unit 3 came online last July. With its four units combined, Plant Vogtle is now the largest generator of clean energy and electricity in the nation.

“To reach our goal of net zero by 2050, we have to at least triple our current nuclear capacity in this country,” Granholm said. “That means we’ve got to add 200 more gigawatts by 2050. Okay, two down, 198 to go.”

Plant Vogtle Unit 3, at right, and Unit 4, the first two new nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in more than three decades.

Georgia Power Company

Nuclear plants, many of which are backed by municipal bonds, are complex projects facing heavy price tags and opposition from some environmentalists. The Vogtle plants marked the first newly constructed reactors in the U.S. in more than three decades, as sponsors abandoned dozens of other projects.

Last November, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems dropped plans to build a first-of-its-kind nuclear plant amid dwindling support from cities on the hook to pay for the electricity. The Biden administration, which sees nuclear as key to meeting its ambitious clean-energy goals, seeks to revive interest in the sector through federal funds and tax incentives.

Despite massive delays and cost overruns that plagued Plant Vogtle, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said last week that he supports building a fifth reactor. “Today, we celebrate the end of that project,” Kemp said. “And now, let’s start planning for Vogtle Five.”

The two reactors’ final price tag came in at nearly $35 billion — $16 billion over original projections— and were delayed by nearly seven years. Granholm said future projects can benefit from Vogtle’s experience.

“In building [Unit] 4, we’ve solved our greatest design challenges. We’ve stood up entire supply chains,” she said. “And so it’s time to cash in on our investments by building more. More of these facilities.”

Since the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act were enacted, both of which include billions for nuclear technology and construction, companies have announced 29 new or expanded nuclear facilities across 16 states, Granholm said.

Recognizing the risks associated with nuclear projects, the White House said Friday that it set up a Nuclear Power Project Management and Delivery working group “to help identify opportunities to proactively mitigate sources of cost and schedule overrun risk.” Among other stakeholders, the administration said it would solicit feedback from investors to help achieve “cost savings for future construction and deployment.”

As of last year, nuclear power accounts for just under 20% of total U.S. electricity generation, and more than 50% of clean electricity.

The U.S. has 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 55 nuclear power plants located in 28 states, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average plant age is almost 40 years. In April the administration announced a $1.5 billion Department of Energy loan to restart the Palisades power plant in Michigan.

The sector’s costs and complexities “will remain formidable barriers,” said Fitch Ratings said in a report last November, “until the cost of new construction can be assured through insurance or guarantees provided by the U.S. government or highly creditworthy entities, widespread ownership agreements can broadly distribute and limit project exposure, and new design construction is proven to be both feasible and replicable.”

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