ATLANTA (AP) — A nuclear power plant in Georgia has begun splitting atoms in one of its two new reactors, Georgia Power said Monday, marking a major step toward commercial operation of the first new nuclear reactors built from scratch in decades in the United States is built. .
The unit of the Atlanta-based Southern Co. said operators achieved self-sustaining nuclear fission at Plant Vogtle’s reactor, southeast of Augusta. That provides the intense heat that will be used to produce steam and spin turbines to generate electricity.
A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle in 2009 by the Georgia Public Service Commission, with the third reactor expected to begin generating power in 2016. The company now says Unit 3 could become commercially operational in May or June.
Unit 4 is expected to become commercially operational sometime between November and March 2024.
The cost of the third and fourth reactors was originally planned to be $14 billion. The reactors would now cost more than $30 billion. That excludes $3.68 billion that original contractor Westinghouse paid to owners after it filed for bankruptcy, bringing total expenses to more than $34 billion.
The latest set of delays at Unit 3 included a piping section of a critical backup cooling system that vibrated during start-up tests. Construction workers had failed to install the supports requested on blueprints. The company also said it needed to repair a slow-dripping valve and diagnose a problem related to water flow through the reactor’s coolant pumps.
Georgia Power said Unit 3 would continue start-up testing to demonstrate that the cooling system and steam supply system will operate in the intense heat and pressure a nuclear reactor creates. After that, operators must connect the reactor to the power grid and gradually run it at full power.
“We remain focused on bringing this unit safely online, fully addressing any issues and getting it right at every level,” Chris Womack, Georgia Power chairman, president and CEO, said in a written statement. “Reaching initial criticality is one of the last steps in the startup process and has required tremendous dedication and attention to detail from our teams.”
Georgia Power owns a minority of the two new reactors. The remaining shares are held by Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the City of Dalton. Oglethorpe and MEAG would sell power to cooperatives and municipal utilities throughout Georgia, as well as Jacksonville, Florida, and parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers are already paying a portion of the borrowing costs, and state regulators have approved a monthly rate increase of $3.78 per month once the third unit begins generating power. The elected Georgia Public Service Commission later decides who pays the rest of the costs.
Vogtle is the only nuclear power plant under construction in the United States. The costs and delays could deter other utilities from building such plants, even as they generate electricity without releasing climate-changing carbon emissions.
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