AJC: Groups want Vogtle cost hearings halted until Georgia PSC elections are held

Groups want Vogtle cost hearings halted until Georgia PSC elections are held
Elections for two seats on the Public Service Commission have been postponed for nearly a year
PSC Chairman Tricia Pridemore (center) and other commissioners are shown during a vote on May 16, 2023.<br />
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com
Credit: Miguel Martinez


A pair of environmental interest groups have asked the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to hold off on deciding how much of Plant Vogtle’s remaining costs will fall to Georgia Power ratepayers until after a pair of postponed elections for two of the commission’s five seats are held.

A petition was filed on October 26 by Nuclear Watch South, a group whose goals include phasing out nuclear power, and Georgia WAND, a local nonprofit focused on environmental justice and the “health hazards resulting from nuclear energy and weapons.”

The first of Plant Vogtle’s new units was completed this summer seven years late and the second new reactor is more than six years behind schedule. The total price tag of project has swelled to more than $35 billion, and Georgia Power estimates it will have spent just under $10.8 billion on construction by the time the expansion is complete.

Early next month, the PSC is set to hear testimony about which costs incurred by Georgia Power to build Plant Vogtle’s two new nuclear reactors were “prudent” and should be allowed to be collected from the company’s electricity customers. The commission is scheduled to take a final vote on potential rate increases to pay for the units on December 19.

But the groups argue that given the “financial magnitude of the decision,” the vote should be delayed until after the body is comprised of “duly elected commissioners.”

“... Any proceeding in which two un-elected commissioners participate or vote unduly jeopardizes the authority and legitimacy of this Commission’s decision and renders it vulnerable to judicial challenge and reversal,” the groups wrote in their petition.

The two commission seats in question belong to Vice Chairman Tim Echols and Commissioner Fitz Johnson, both Republicans.

Echols was elected to the District 2 seat on the commission in 2016. Johnson, meanwhile, was appointed to fill the District 3 seat by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2021, after then-Commissioner Chuck Eaton stepped down to join the Atlanta Judicial Circuit.

Elections for the seats held by Echols and Johnson were supposed to be on ballots last November. But after a legal challenge to Georgia’s system for electing PSC commissioners went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in August 2022, the elections were postponed. They have remained in limbo ever since, as the parties wait on a ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. It remains unclear when the appeals court will make a decision.

In the meantime, Echols and Johnson have continued to serve and vote in cases that come before the commission. Attorneys for the PSC have said that the appeals court’s earlier ruling clearly allows the commissioners to do so until after an election is held.

During a public comment period after the commission’s meeting on Thursday, Glenn Carroll, a coordinator for Nuclear Watch South and a co-signer of the petition, asked the commission to consider the group’s request to delay the Vogtle vote.

PSC Chairman Jason Shaw said the commission is reviewing the petition, but would give other interested parties 30 days to respond. Preston Thomas, a PSC staff attorney, said that according to the PSC’s guidelines, it will be up to the chairman to make a decision on the group’s request at the start of the Vogtle cost hearings. Those are set to begin on December 4.

Thomas also said that the commission’s legal staff believes the petition is “without merit” and said the group’s concerns would be up to the federal appeals court to decide, not the PSC.

In the meantime, Georgia Power has already struck a preliminary deal with the PSC staff and some consumer advocacy groups would allow it to collect $7.6 billion of the remaining Vogtle costs from ratepayers. The rest would be absorbed by shareholders of its parent, Southern Company.

If that plan is approved by the PSC, it could drive the average residential customer’s monthly bill up by $9.


Glenn Carroll
Nuclear Watch South