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Southern Vogtle Nuke in Doubt

A planned nuclear power plant heralded as one of the first new large nuclear units in three decades in the U.S. faces an uncertain future.

Southern Company’s massive Vogtle nuclear project, heralded as a harbinger of the rebirth of U.S. nuclear power capabilities, is floundering and its future in doubt as a result of the bankruptcy of Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric.

Thomas Fanning, Southern chairman and chief executive, said, “We are working with Toshiba to receive complete assurance as to the $3.7 billion guarantee that they owe us, whether we finish the project or not,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper reported “even if it obtains those commitments, Southern isn’t sure it can finish the half-built Georgia reactors.” The utility is expected to decide the fate of the plant, planned since 2008, in coming weeks.

Toshiba has had billions of dollars of losses caused by delays and cost overruns at the Vogtle project and at a Scana Corp. nuclear plant under construction in South Carolina. The Westinghouse AP1000 plants were designed to be cooled in emergencies – even without operator intervention or a mechanical assist.

Both of those efforts were pointed to as promising signs that nuclear power, with streamlined designs and less burdensome federal regulations, could rebound after the country has gone decades without new commercial nuclear generation being built.

Nuclear power would be an important ally for those wishing to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change. But cheap natural gas, growing deployments of renewable power and lingering concerns about the safety of nuclear power and its long-lived waste have complicated the path forward for the nuclear industry.

After Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March, Southern and its Vogtle co-owners agreed to pay ongoing construction costs, the Journal said.

The newspaper reported: “Mr. Fanning made clear that even if Toshiba agrees to pay the $3.7 billion and to the other conditions, Southern still hasn’t decided whether it would finish building the plant. He said Southern will recommend to its co-owners and state regulators whether to proceed ‘in a month or two.’”

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