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Georgia's new nuclear plant is expected to make a dent in state's carbon emissions


The first new nuclear reactor built in the U.S. in more than 40 years is in its final phase of testing in Georgia. After more than a decade of construction and spiraling costs, it's expected to come fully online this month. A second new reactor at Plant Vogtle is also nearing completion. WABE's Emily Jones reports on what they mean for the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the Vogtle construction in 2012, it's been hailed as the dawn of a new nuclear age by leaders like then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He visited the plant near Augusta as construction got underway.


STEVEN CHU: The resurgence of America's nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you've just got approval, for the first time in three decades, to build new nuclear reactors.

JONES: And leaders of Plant Vogtle's majority owner, Georgia Power, say it's still a success story. Chris Womack, the former CEO of Georgia Power and now head of its parent, Southern Company, spoke at the company's annual meeting in May.


CHRIS WOMACK: Yes, we've had our challenges. I'm confident that the state of Georgia and our customers, our company, the world, will be so proud of the work that we've done in bringing Vogtle online.

JONES: Each reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes without burning fossil fuels, and that's important. Nearly a third of the country's carbon emissions come from making electricity. To fight climate change, scientists say we need to cut emissions fast. Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech says Plant Vogtle will make a big dent in Georgia's emissions.

MARILYN BROWN: I'm anticipating something like 5 to 10% lower emissions from electricity once those two units are up and running. That's a big number.

JONES: But in the decade it's taken to build Vogtle, it's become a cautionary tale of cascading delays and climbing costs. The first reactor was scheduled to come online in 2016. It's hitting that milestone seven years later. The total price tag has more than doubled to more than $30 billion. Now utilities are looking at smaller reactors. Those would generate hundreds of megawatts instead of thousands, like Vogtle. John Kotek of the Nuclear Energy Institute says after Vogtle, utilities are looking for nuclear projects that would have a more reliable cost and schedule.

JOHN KOTEK: Part of the motivation for the small modular reactors here in the U.S. is that they come with a lower price tag. They're just physically smaller machines that cost less to build. They'll take less time to get into operation.

JONES: But critics say that was the promise of Vogtle, too, that it would be a new kind of reactor that's cheaper and faster to build. University of British Columbia physicist M.V. Ramana says there's no reason to think small modular reactors will be different.

M V RAMANA: The lesson I think we should learn from this is what works on the computer doesn't work in the real world.

JONES: He says Vogtle's delays and cost overruns were predictable before construction even started because similar issues have plagued most other nuclear projects. In fact, experts told regulators that the costs could skyrocket back in 2008, and that's exactly what happened. Jennifer Whitfield with the Southern Environmental Law Center says now it means power bills will go up for millions of Georgians.

JENNIFER WHITFIELD: It's absolutely nonsensical that they are going to have to bear the burden of this gamble with this kind of technology.

JONES: Whitfield says there are more cost-effective ways to decarbonize, like energy efficiency improvements and solar, which is now cheaper than gas, coal and nuclear. Proponents see nuclear as a complement to renewables, providing power all the time, instead of only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But Ramana says solving the climate crisis will require bigger changes.

RAMANA: We need to rethink how we're going to manage the grid and in a way that's not going to be a silver-bullet solution.

JONES: But here in Georgia, the new reactors are already built. Now it's just a matter of paying for them.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Jones in Savannah, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Jones