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Category — Nuclear Plant Licensing

Obama’s Southern Company Play: How Much Nuclear Plant for $14.5 Billion, 80% Federally Guaranteed?

In August 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its fourth Early Site Permit for two new units at Southern Nuclear’s Vogtle site and its first for the Westinghouse AP1000 pressurized water reactor design. The two new units planned for Vogtle also became the reference plant for the AP1000 under NuStart in June 2009. This means Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will be the first licensed installations of the new AP1000 reactor design.

On February 16, President Obama announced that the DOE has offered Plant Vogtle terms for a loan guarantee that could provide up to 80% of the project estimated cost of $14.5 billion with the Southern Nuclear only paying a credit subsidy fee.

That’s a lot of commitment from taxpayers–$11.6 billion worth. Perhaps rapidly rising construction costs of new nuclear plants is partly why the owners want such large protection up front. But there are problems with fundamental economics comparing nuclear to the best foregone opportunity.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations comparing a natural gas-fired combined cycle plant to a new nuclear plant raise more questions than answers.  For example, assume a utility has a baseload need of 2,400 MW in the future (like the new Vogtle units). Next, use the EIA future price projection of about 12 cents/kWh for nuclear and 8 cents/kWh for a gas-fired combined cycle produced electricity.

At today’s gas prices (yes, the prices have historically been extremely volatile), the combined cycle plant would use about $750 million a year of fuel. The 4 cents/kWh difference in busbar cost of generation is also equivalent to about $750 million per year in lower cost electricity generation. In essence, it’s an economic dead heat. However, the first cost of the no-risk gas combined-cycle plant is about a fifth of the nuclear plant, the latter which requires large government subsidies.

Simple math suggests that the gas-fired option should be back on the table. Moderate the fuel price risk with financial instruments with Grade A corporations. Obviously, there are major competitive problems with the nuclear plants to require such a large government subsidy–more explanation is invited in the comments by those in the know.

Background

The Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generation Plant (Plant Vogtle) is one of Georgia Power’s two nuclear facilities and one of three nuclear facilities in the Southern Company system (Figure 1). Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of Southern Company since 1990, is the licensed operator of Plant Vogtle, which is located about 25 miles south of Augusta, Ga. The plant is jointly owned by Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corp. (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%), and the Dalton Utilities (1.6%). [Read more →]

March 4, 2010   5 Comments