Nuclear power plant in Georgia Georgia Power said Monday it has started splitting atoms in one of two new reactors, a key step toward commercial operation of the first new nuclear reactors built from scratch in decades in United States.

Atlanta-based Southern Co. said operators had achieved self-sustained nuclear fission at a reactor at the Vogtle plant, southeast of Augusta. This makes intense heat that will be used to produce steam and spin turbines to produce electricity.

The third and fourth reactors were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2009, and the third reactor was scheduled to begin generating power in 2016. The company now says Unit 3 could begin commercial operation in May or June.

Unit 4 is scheduled to begin commercial operation between November and March 2024.

The cost of the third and fourth reactors was originally supposed to be $14 billion. Now the reactors must cost more than 30 billion dollars. This does not include $3.68 billion from the original contractor Westinghouse paid out to owners after bankruptcy, bringing the total cost to more than $34 billion.

The most recent series of delays at Unit 3 involved a section of pipe in a critical backup cooling system that vibrated during start-up tests. The builders could not install the supports provided by the projects. The company also said it had to repair a slowly dripping valve and diagnose a problem with the flow of water through the reactor’s coolant pumps.

Georgia Power said Unit 3 will continue with commissioning tests to show that its cooling system and steam supply system will work under the intense heat and pressure created by a nuclear reactor. After that, the operators must connect the reactor to the power grid and gradually bring it to full power.

“We remain focused on bringing this unit back online safely, fully resolving any issues and getting it right at every level,” Chris Womack, Georgia Power’s chairman, president and CEO, said in a written statement. “Achieving initial criticality is one of the final steps in the launch process and requires tremendous diligence and attention to detail from our teams.”

Georgia Power has a minority interest in the two new reactors. The remaining shares are owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Georgia Municipal Electric Power Authority and the city of Dalton. Oglethorpe and MEAG will sell power to cooperatives and utilities throughout Georgia, as well as in Jacksonville, Florida, and parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Georgia Power’s 2.7 million customers already pay some of the cost of the financing, and state regulators have approved a monthly rate increase of $3.78 a month once the third unit starts generating power. The Georgia Public Service Commission will decide later who will pay the rest of the cost.

Vogtle is the only nuclear power plant under construction in the United States. Its costs and delays could deter other utilities from building such plants, even if they generate electricity without climate-changing carbon emissions.


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