Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: An answer for Ga. Power


More than a decade ago, our good friends at Georgia Power conceived the idea of building two new nuclear reactors -- the first to be built on U.S. soil in a generation -- at its Vogtle site outside Augusta.

Georgia Power recruited the partners it needed from electric co-ops and city utilities around the state. It convinced its obedient servants at the state Public Service Commission to rubber-stamp the project, which they did by a 4-1 vote. (All four "yes" men are still on the PSC  today, still collecting their six-figure salaries, their durability testament to the wisdom of not crossing Georgia Power.)

The company hired the most powerful lobbyists in the state to supplement its own standing army of lobbyists, then strong-armed a law through a compliant state Legislature that forced consumers to start paying for the nuke projects immediately, long before they produced any power. Getting the signature of then-Gov. Sonny Perdue on that bill also proved to be no problem, since the man whom Perdue had hired as his chief of staff happened to have been Georgia Power's top lobbyist for decades.

Georgia Power chose the design. Georgia Power hired the contractors. Georgia Power assured everyone who would listen that the problems that had long dogged nuclear power -- the safety concerns, the massive cost-overruns and construction delays -- had been resolved, and that the units would be up and producing power by 2017 just as scheduled. Critics who noted the difficulty and risk of trying to restart a complicated, zero-defect industry from scratch were steamrollered.

The message from the company was steadfast: "Don't worry, we got this."

Well no, they didn't. They were wrong, spectacularly wrong, and their critics have been proved right. Under the original schedule, both new nuclear units should have been producing power by now. Instead, they are less than half built. The cost overruns have been enormous, basically doubling in cost even if nothing further goes wrong. And what is the price to be paid for such failure?

For Georgia Power, the price is none. No price, and to hear Georgia Power tell it, no failure. In a meeting last week with reporters from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers was asked whether the company deserved any blame or responsibility for imposing this financial catastrophe on the people of Georgia.

“The answer to that question is no,” Bowers said.

No? The answer to that question is no?

As long as they maintain that absurd position, Bowers and other Georgia Power officials understand that their company and its shareholders will pay no financial penalty for its role in proposing, pushing, building and ultimately botching this project. You and I will pay -- have been paying already -- through our power bills. The company that employs you will pay, the businesses where you shop will pay -- we'll all be paying billions and billions of dollars, while Georgia Power will pay nothing.

Because as Bowers says, they've done nothing wrong. They're not responsible. Things just ... happened.

The same four PSC commissioners who approved the Vogtle expansion back in 2009, the people whom we elect and pay to put the "regulated" in "regulated utility," are now sitting in judgment not just of Georgia Power, but of their own complicity in this. They can choose to press ahead, committing several billion dollars more of your money, to prove that they were right back in 2009; they can also choose to abandon the project and by doing so admit their own error.

Guess which way they're leaning?

Once again we hear the assurances. This time, the cost estimates are solid; this time, the construction schedule will be met, cross their heart and hope to die. Don't worry, they've got this. And is Georgia Power so confident in those promises that it is willing to put its own shareholder money at risk in any way if those assurances prove no more valid than those it offered almost a decade ago?

To borrow a phrase from the company's CEO, the answer to that question is no.

So should the PSC commit ratepayers in this state to that deal, knowing the track record, without requiring any skin in the game from Georgia Power?

Repeat after me: "The answer to that question is no."


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.