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NRC Grants Early Site Permit for Vogtle

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday issued an Early Site Permit (ESP) and Limited Work Authorization (LWA) to Southern Nuclear Operating Company, giving the company the green light to begin preliminary work on two new nuclear power generating units at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.

Having an ESP in hand means the Southern Company has resolved numerous “site-related safety and environmental issues” and that the NRC has determined the Vogtle “site is suitable for possible future construction and operation of a nuclear power plant,” the Commission said. The LWA allows the Southern Company to undertake limited construction, such as placing engineered backfill, retaining walls, lean concrete, mudmats, and a waterproof membrane.

The Southern Company, an Atlanta-based group that owns Georgia Power, applied for an ESP on Aug. 15, 2006 and an LWA on Aug. 16, 2007. Here’s how the review process went, according to the NRC:

The NRC staff’s technical review of the Vogtle ESP and LWA applications covered issues such as how the site’s characteristics could affect plant safety, environmental protection, and plans for coping with emergencies. The staff published a final environmental impact statement for the permits in August 2008, and a final safety evaluation on Feb. 5, 2009. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) conducted a hearing on the matter and ruled Aug. 17 that the permit could be issued.

The NRC staff is still reviewing Southern Company’s application for a Combined License (COL) to construct and operate two AP1000 nuclear reactors at Vogtle to go along with the two existing units. While the ESP clears up some of the environmental questions, Southern Company must obtain a COL before embarking on full construction.

Wednesday’s news is the latest development in Georgia Power’s long campaign to sell the idea of more nuclear power to the public and lawmakers while simultaneously trying to obtain permission to build more reactors.

Lobbyists for Georgia Power spent big bucks persuading state lawmakers to pass SB 31, a bill that would allow the company to begin charging ratepayers upfront for construction costs of the two new units, which are not scheduled for completion until sometime in 2017.

The total cost is estimated at $14 billion with Georgia Power expected to cover about $6.4 billion.

The company argued using this model, known as Construction Work in Progress (CWIP), would save consumers and the company money in the long-run while the actual construction process would create more jobs and lead the country farther away from dependence on foreign oil.

While Georgia Power estimated it would raise $1.6 billion with the CWIP model, a report surfaced in February that most of that would end up in the hands of the company’s shareholders rather than be used to pay down debt.

Nevertheless, state lawmakers in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly passed SB 31 later that month with comfortable margins.

Critics complained that SB 31 was essentially an end-run around the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), a five-member board that gave Georgia Power certification for Plant Vogtle’s expansion on March 17.

In December, the Public Interest Advocacy Staff for the PSC recommended that PSC reject the CWIP model, arguing it would be “harmful to ratepayers.”

The staff offered a compromise, a so-called “mirror” CWIP that would reduce the rate shock when the new reactors become operational, an idea Georgia Power aggressively opposed.

Instead of sticking to a tentative agreement to put the whole CWIP question on hold until 2010, the PSC decided to back the original CWIP idea on March 17 anyway.

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