The Vogtle nuclear power plant—seven years behind schedule and a staggering US$14 billion over budget—is finally nearing completion. Once Units 3 and 4 are finished, Vogtle will become the largest power plant in the US, generating a capacity large enough to power one million households.
The Southern Company estimates that Vogtle’s new units will contribute an annual power output of 1,700 MWh. In contrast to the boom of nuclear construction between the 1970s and 1980s, when a total of 106 nuclear power plants emerged, the US has since seen a pronounced deceleration in the industry. Since 1990, only a mere five reactors have been brought online, while 22 have been decommissioned. The shift toward cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources, as well as the 2011 Fukushima disaster have contributed to this slowdown. In fact, Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are the first reactors to be permitted and built in the US since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear incident.
The Vogtle nuclear power plant is a marvel of size and capacity. Units 1 and 2 each boast a net capacity of 1,148 MW and went commercial in 1987 and 1989, respectively. The decision to expand the plant by adding Units 3 and 4 was made in August 2005, with environmental approvals granted in August 2008. Initially, the new reactors were projected to be completed by 2016 and 2017. However, issues with the contractor, design modifications following the Fukushima disaster, and Westinghouse’s bankruptcy ultimately delayed work. Construction resumed in 2017, with Unit 3 already having been connected to the grid this April, and Unit 4 scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter of this year.
In the face of Vogtle’s imminent completion, Southern Company’s recently appointed CEO, Chris Womack, highlighted the project’s testament to the viability and crucial role of nuclear power. Despite the setbacks experienced due to supply chain disruptions and the Fukushima disaster, he asserts that Vogtle will ultimately stand as a substantial asset propelling the zero-carbon agenda. According to Womack, nuclear energy must be incorporated into the energy framework to address zero-carbon targets effectively.
The question remains: Will Vogtle mark the last endeavor in large-scale nuclear power plants in the United States? Department of Energy official, Jigar Shah, suggests the nation stands at a critical juncture regarding nuclear energy resurgence, but the future remains shrouded in uncertainty. Currently, over 70 nations have established net-zero objectives, and several are weighing the merits of carbon-free nuclear power to address the climate change conundrum.
Interestingly, nuclear reactors often outlive their expected operation times. Several nuclear power operators are investing efforts to lengthen reactor lifetimes to a potential 80 years, with some researchers even probing the possibility of a century-long nuclear power supply. Consequently, nuclear power, despite enduring criticism for high costs and long construction periods, is being reconsidered.
Cost remains the most significant hurdle in constructing large-scale nuclear power plants. In 2017, the construction and capital costs for Vogtle’s two reactors were initially approximated at US$14 billion. However, by 2021, this figure had doubled to US$28.5 billion.
This fiscal challenge is driving the nuclear industry to innovate and develop next-generation reactors. While these small modular reactors (SMRs) are comparatively smaller in scale, their capacity ranges between 1 to 300 MW—quite a contrast to Vogtle’s towering 1,000 MW units. SMRs can be manufactured directly in factories and assembled onsite, a potentially cost-effective alternative that can be rapidly installed. Presently, numerous companies are researching and developing module SMRs, hoping to deliver cheaper and faster solutions. Nonetheless, the commercial deployment of such technology remains a distant reality.
(Image: Vogtle Unit 3; Source: Georgia Power Company)