First of two new reactors reaches 100% power output at Georgia's Plant Vogtle

FILE - Unit 3’s reactor and cooling tower stand at Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant on Jan. 20, 2023, in Waynesboro, Ga. Company officials announced Wednesday, May 24, 2023, that Unit 3, one of two new reactors at the site, would reach full power in coming days, after years of delays and billions in cost overruns. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

The first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta has reached 100% power for the first time, a big step which signals the unit could begin sending electricity out to Georgia homes in early June.

Georgia Power said Unit 3 reached its maximum output of 1,100 megawatts Monday morning, but the company said it still must put the unit through a battery of tests before it can be synced with the electric grid and dispatched for commercial operation. The unit is expected to begin delivering power in June.

Both units are more than six years behind schedule and their total price tag has climbed to more than $35 billion, more than double the company’s initial forecast. Still, Georgia Power’s chairman, president and CEO Kim Greene called the achievement of 100% power “an exciting milestone.”

“It tells us we’re close to finishing the unit safely and bringing it online to power Georgia homes and businesses with reliable, emissions-free energy for decades to come,” Greene added.

Once complete, Georgia Power says, Unit 3 and its twin, Unit 4, will produce enough electricity for 500,000 homes and businesses without contributing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The units are the first new commercial nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in more than three decades, and it remains to be seen if their completion will usher in an American nuclear renaissance. Either way, the carbon-free power from both reactors will come at a high cost to Georgia Power customers.

The Tennessee Valley Authority added the last new commercial nuclear reactor to the grid in 2016 when it finished construction and started the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City — 43 years after construction began at Watts Bar.

For construction of the new units at plant Vogtle in Georiga, the average Georgia Power customer will have already paid about $913 in their monthly bills by the end of this year, witnesses have told state regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC). As soon as Unit 3 comes online, Georgia Power estimates its customers will begin paying roughly $3.78 more on their monthly bills.

Additional rate hikes to pay for the units are likely, with the exact amount to be determined by the PSC in hearings that are set to start after fuel is loaded into Unit 4.

At an annual shareholder meeting held last week by Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, its newly minted president and CEO Chris Womack said Unit 4 has begun receiving nuclear fuel and is working through inspections needed before federal regulators will clear it to place fuel rods in the reactor. He repeated the company’s forecast that Unit 4 will load fuel in July.

Three other electricity providers own shares in the new Vogtle units. Georgia Power currently holds the largest stake with 45.7%, followed by Oglethorpe Power — a cooperative serving utilities across the state — which owns 30%. The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power) owns 22.7% of the project, while Dalton Utilities has the smallest share with 1.6%.