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Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 2:41pm

State Regulators Approve A Deal On Nuclear Plant Costs

A debate over the rising cost of building a nuclear power plant in Georgia will be delayed for years under an agreement approved Tuesday by Georgia's utility regulators.

The elected members of Georgia's Public Service Commission unanimously approved a deal that will put off a decision on whether Georgia Power can raise its budget for building two more nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle until the first of those reactors is finished. An independent state monitor has estimated the first reactor will be finished in January 2018 at the earliest.

Regulators will continue monitoring company spending but will not make a decision on raising the bottom line budget figure.

Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power asked in February that state regulators raise its construction budget by $737 million to $6.85 billion. Georgia Power owns a roughly 46 percent stake in the new reactors. The other owners include Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton.

The company's request to increase its budget created a dilemma for regulators. If Georgia Power exceeds its state-approved budget of roughly $6.1 billion, then the utility has the burden of convincing regulators that the extra spending should be passed along to its customers. But if the commission had voted to increase the budget now, then the utility would be allowed under state law to charge its customers for the extra costs unless state regulators could prove the spending was reckless or the result of fraud.

Further complicating matters, Southern Co. and the plant owners are simultaneously negotiating a legal dispute with the plant's designers and builders worth an estimated $930 million to Georgia customers. Utility regulators said they were concerned that forcing Southern Co. to discuss its budget issues in public now might hurt its stance at the bargaining table.

The deal allows the utility to avoid a politically charged budget conflict as it deals with significant cost overruns on a separate coal gasification project in Mississippi and a rate case in Georgia.

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