Positive Reaction

GaBiz Editor in Chief chats with Southern Company President and CEO-elect Chris Womack about the news that Plant Vogtle has begun splitting atoms, a key step to producing clean, emission-free energy.

For Georgia Power, the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, developing clean energy resources is more than just a talking point. In March, the company announced that one of Plant Vogtle’s reactors has begun splitting atoms, a vital step toward creating sustainable, emission-free energy. The power plant in Burke County, near Waynesboro, boasts one of the first new built-from-scratch nuclear reactors in decades. Georgia Power owns 45.7 percent of the facility, with the remainder of the ownership split between Oglethorpe Power Corporation, Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and Dalton Utilities. Here, Southern Company President and CEO-elect Chris Womack (formerly Chairman, President, and CEO of Georgia Power) shares details on why this news is important and how it paves the way for cleaner energy in Georgia for generations to come. 

Plant Vogtle has begun splitting atoms in one of its two new reactors. Congratulations! Can you talk about that milestone and what it means for the future of energy in Georgia and the nation?
This is a big deal. Initial criticality is one of the final steps during the startup process for Vogtle Unit 3 and demonstrates that—for the first time—operators have safely started the nuclear reaction inside the reactor. This means atoms are being split and nuclear heat is being made, which will be used to produce steam and generate electricity.  

When you consider the history of safe and reliable operations at Vogtle Units 1 and 2 for decades now, it puts this milestone in perspective that Plant Vogtle will be a four-unit site, making it the largest of its kind in the U.S. This is a truly exciting time as we prepare to bring online a new nuclear unit that will serve our state with clean and emission-free energy for the next 60 to 80 years. Upon completion, Units 3 and 4, along with existing Units 1 and 2, are expected to power more than 1 million homes and businesses. Once completed, we expect Vogtle 1–4 will generate more carbon-free electricity each year than any other energy facility currently operating in the U.S.  

Plant Vogtle’s reactors are the first to begin construction in America in more than three decades. Why is that? Why Georgia and why now?
At Georgia Power, we’re committed to making the essential, critical investments needed to meet our customers’ evolving energy needs, both today and for years to come. Investing in nuclear energy is an example of those investments. In fact, our existing units at Plant Vogtle have been tested time and again and proven to be reliable, resilient, and cost effective, serving our customers through some of our hottest, coldest, and most extreme weather events. Based on the value they have provided over the years, we knew the new units would help us continue to provide and deliver clean, safe, reliable, and affordable energy as our state continues to grow.    

The new units at Plant Vogtle are thanks, in large part, to the vision of many of our state’s leaders. At the forefront has been the Georgia Public Service Commission, which is responsible for regular oversight of Georgia Power, taking a long-term view of our state’s future energy needs, and ensuring that we have the diverse energy mix needed to serve Georgians through investments such as Plant Vogtle.  

The third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016 but reached initial criticality for the first time on March 6, 2023. Can you offer context about the delays and challenges?
Building new nuclear units is a complex process, and building the first new nuclear units in the U.S. in more than 30 years makes the process that much more complex. Among other challenges, we have had to reestablish America’s nuclear energy supply chain and talent pipeline to ensure the nuclear quality construction needed to bring the new units online safely. Looking back, every decision we have made on this project has been with our customers and the future energy needs of Georgia top of mind. We know that, as Georgia continues to grow and thrive, this zero-emission source of energy will serve millions of Georgians well for up to 80 years, and we have taken the time to get it right.  

Nuclear plants generate electricity without releasing carbon emissions. What are some other benefits of nuclear over other types of electricity?Nuclear is one part of our diverse energy mix—which also includes natural gas, coal, hydro, and renewable energy such as solar—all working together to deliver clean, safe, reliable, and affordable energy for our customers whenever and wherever they need it.  

Nuclear energy is considered “baseload” energy, which means it is available nearly all of the time for our customers at a very low, predictable cost once the units are up and running. Outside of planned outages to refuel the units, [the reactors] are extremely reliable and can operate around the clock regardless of the weather. All of that comes with the added benefit of zero emissions, which brings an additional layer of value for customers when you’re talking about combating climate change and helping protect the environment for future generations.  

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office is providing more than $12 billion in loan guarantees to complete the project, and Plant Vogtle is expected to support around 9,000 workers during peak construction and create 800 permanent jobs. What will be the economic impact of the project for Georgia?
The economic impact of the project is clear in Augusta, Waynesboro, and the surrounding region when you look at the thousands of jobs that the construction of the plant has provided, and the permanent jobs that will be created once the units are online. Plant Vogtle is a major employer in the eastern part of the state, including for many veterans of the nuclear Navy, and we’re proud of the positive impact of the plant on the local community. Beyond direct jobs, you also have to consider the indirect impact for the hundreds of vendors and suppliers that support the project every day across industries.   

Georgia is well known as the number one state to do business and a huge credit is due to the work of our partners at the Georgia Department of Economic Development for retaining and bringing new businesses to Georgia. Our role at Georgia Power is to assist in this process wherever we can—most importantly, investing in our power grid and generation fleet. We know that’s a major factor for businesses of all types and sizes, especially heavy manufacturers and data centers, and the Vogtle project delivers exceptional value for our state.  

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