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The PSC Gives Georgians Lumps of Uranium In Their Stockings

The sign outside the PSC hearing room on Dec. 20 said, “Merry Christmas from the Georgia Public Service Commission.” Inside the hearing room, it was a merry Christmas indeed for one of the state’s biggest corporate entities, Georgia Power.

With scarcely enough time for a “Ho ho ho,” the five PSC members voted unanimously to give Georgia Power one of the most expensive yuletide gifts an American corporation could receive:  an agreement that lets Georgia Power almost completely off the hook for virtually all of its multi-billion-dollar cost overruns on two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle.

For the many Georgians who depend on Georgia Power for their electricity, the news was less cheery. They’ll have to shoulder the burden of paying for these overruns in the form of higher rates on their monthly bills. That’s because the PSC action effectively absolves the utility giant of having to eat most of those cost overruns, no matter how many foul-ups have been committed during the construction of the reactors. Instead Georgia Power can simply pass along these increases to its ratepayers.

Look at it this way: Suppose you have to get some cracks in your driveway repaired. You hire a contractor to do the job after you get a written estimate that he can do the job in three weeks for $1,000. Six months later, the contractor finally finishes the repairing the driveway and seeks you out for payment. He informs you, “The first group of workers didn’t know how to pour concrete, and by the time they got finished, they messed up the job completely. I had to hire a second crew, but found out they didn’t know how to pour concrete either, so I had to spend two weeks showing them how to do it. Because of all those delays and extra workers, I’m going to have to charge you $10,000 for the job.”

If you’re at all like me, you tell the contractor, “Sorry, we have a written agreement that you’ll repair the driveway for $1,000. Here’s your payment of $1,000.” That’s how people of normal intelligence would handle the situation.

The Public Service Commission members, on the other hand, would handle this entirely differently. They would not only agree to pay the contractor $10,000 for a bungled job, they’d give him another $2,000 so he could buy Christmas gifts for his family. That, in effect, is what the PSC has just done for Georgia Power on the Vogtle nuclear project.  Except that the utility’s customers are the ones who are paying for the contractor’s ineptitude.

The Public Service Commission, in short, just put a lump of uranium in your Christmas stocking.

In trying to explain why they are dumping this mess on Georgia’s consumers, the commissioners resorted to out-and-out falsehoods to justify their actions. At one point in that meeting, Commissioner Stan Wise said that by approving the Vogtle settlement, “We hope that the project is completed on time.”

No offense, Mr. Commissioner, but you’re either the world’s biggest liar or the world’s dumbest politician. When you and your colleagues gave Georgia Power the initial go-ahead for the Vogtle nukes, the starting date for operation was Apr. 1, 2016. That was more than eight months ago, which means that the project has already gone well past its deadline. The PSC’s own experts who’ve been monitoring the construction at Vogtle now estimate that the reactors will be somewhere between 39–45 months behind schedule before they finally begin generating electricity for Georgia Power.

But cost overruns? Nothing to worry about. The customers are going to take care of that, and they’ll be taking care of it for a long time to come.