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America’s Only New Nuclear Plant Inches Closer to a Long-Delayed Start


A reactor at the only nuclear power plant under construction in the U.S., which is billions over budget and years behind schedule, started loading fuel this month and could be delivering power by the end of March.

Southern Co.

SO 1.80%

, the Atlanta-based utility company building the nuclear-power plant, said it expects the first new reactor at its Vogtle project to be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2023. The first sustained nuclear reaction could occur in January followed by testing electric power production and safety systems, while a second reactor could be completed by late 2023, the company said on Thursday.

Vogtle, located near Waynesboro, Ga., has been dogged for years by cost and schedule overruns. It was originally planned to open in 2016, and some analysts estimate its total costs have doubled from initial projections to more than $30 billion. While public perceptions of nuclear power have been shifting because of nuclear’s ability to provide a stable supply of carbon-free power, the experience at Vogtle has tamped down enthusiasm for some in the U.S. utilities industry about pursuing large projects.

“Maybe things can be done better with lessons learned, but no one is building one,” said Paul Patterson, analyst at Glenrock Associates LLC.

Southern’s Chief Executive

Thomas A. Fanning

said Thursday that Vogtle will be a valuable asset for a nascent energy transition away from fossil fuels. Southern’s Georgia Power unit owns about 46% of the project.

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“We know that coal is dissipating in importance. We know that gas has its issues. We’ve got to capture the carbon coming off of that. Nuclear is the safest, at-scale, carbon-free emission resource not subject to intermittency like renewables are,” Mr. Fanning said.

Jeff Lyash,

chief executive of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which oversees power generation for a large part of the mid-South, said this week that he wouldn’t rule out large nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. in the future, but a new fleet of proposed smaller modular reactors will instead play a more immediate role in the electricity sector.

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“This market may loop back to [large reactors] down the road,” he said.

Proponents of small modular reactors, or SMRs, say they could be cheaper and faster to build than bulky predecessors like Vogtle, but the economics will have to be proven. Both TVA and Southern are among the utilities considering SMRs as a way to decarbonize their power generation mix in the next decade and beyond.

“The capital cost and duration to build these is at a scale that a company can take on, that the supply chain can supply, without the kind of risk that these gigawatt-plus reactors represent,” Mr. Lyash said.

Write to Jennifer Hiller at [email protected]

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