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Nearly 6,000 workers continue work on two new nuclear reactors at Georgia’s Vogtle project. File/Georgia Power/Provided

Georgia utility watchdogs want to pull the plug on a pair of nuclear reactors being built near Augusta, dealing a fresh blow to the future of the American nuclear industry.

Georgia's regulatory staff say two partially built reactors at Plant Vogtle could be canceled like the V.C. Summer expansion project in South Carolina, which was abandoned earlier this summer. 

That independent staff, which is in charge of analyzing utility projects in the state, said construction should be shut down unless Georgia Power covers nearly $4 billion in estimated costs. Georgia Power, the primary owner of the reactors, has asked for customers to carry almost all of the costs. 

An analysis conducted by the Public Service Commission staff suggested the reactors would cost customers $1.6 billion more than other energy sources. 

Georgia's five-member Public Service Commission is responsible for issuing the final decision on whether the construction project near Augusta continues. But the staff's opposition to the project could play a key role in the commissioners' final decision, which is expected in February. 

The Vogtle project has suffered from many of the same problems that waylaid V.C. Summer, including unreliable schedules, engineering changes and a string of construction delays. The sister reactors in Georgia and South Carolina relied on the same unfinished design, and both projects suffered serious setbacks due to Westinghouse's project management and bankruptcy in March.

Even so, Georgia Power has argued the projects are not the same and that its reactors should be finished.

The Westinghouse reactors are now expected to cost more than $20 billion. But electric customers would shoulder a "disproportionate amount of the risk" for the project moving forward, according to the staff's analysis. Meanwhile, Georgia Power's exposure would be "quite limited" if costs for the yet-untested reactors increased further. 

The Atlanta-based utility owns close to half of the project, with the rest split between cooperatives and city-owned electric providers.

Officials with Southern Co., the parent company of Georgia Power, said they disagreed with the idea that the utility was not carrying any risk with the project. Jacob Hawkins, a spokesperson with Southern, said Georgia Power was "absolutely sharing in the financial risk of the Vogtle project." 

Hawkins said Southern would respond to the staff's recommendations through the Georgia Public Service Commission. 

The staff's recommendations are likely to set up a heated regulatory battle in Georgia, as South Carolina continues to reel from its own nuclear cancellation. Construction at Vogtle proceeded over the past four months as the V.C. Summer project became embroiled in multiple investigations and a long list of lawsuits. 

If the nuclear reactors at Vogtle are abandoned, it is likely to sink the industry's attempt to jump-start a new era of nuclear power in the United States. It could also lay to rest any notion of restarting construction at V.C. Summer, as some South Carolina lawmakers have suggested. 

The Georgia utility staff's analysis highlighted the changing energy landscape in the United States. When the Georgia nuclear project broke ground almost a decade ago, natural gas prices were much higher, renewable energy sources were not as prevalent, and the industry expected a tax on carbon emissions. 

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"Without these economic cornerstones, the economic rationale for the units is diminished," the Georgia utility staff said.

The owners of South Carolina’s unfinished reactors — SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper — cited those same energy transformations when they axed their project in July.

Georgia's utility staff emphasized that Southern Co.'s takeover of the project did not guarantee the large-scale construction could be completed. The staff pointed to the Kemper project in Mississippi where Southern has spent $7.5 billion on a "clean coal" plant, which is almost $5 billion over its initial budget. 

That plant is now expected to burn natural gas, and it won't capture carbon emissions as the company once promised.  

Southern has hired Bechtel, a San Francisco-based construction and engineering firm to assist them in completing the Westinghouse-designed reactors in Georgia. But as the utility staff points out, the Georgia and South Carolina projects already have seen three construction contractors come and go in the past decade. 

Even if the reactors at Vogtle are built, the staff emphasized there is no guarantee that the first-of-its-kind technology will work. Westinghouse did not use licensed engineers to design the reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, according to documents obtained by The Post and Courier.  

Professional engineers from the V.C. Summer project told The Post and Courier that those decisions led to serious problems with the construction drawings. Thousands of designs had to be changed, they said, and the revisions often delayed an already troubled construction process. 

"The commission should take into consideration the unusual nature and potential magnitude of the project's technology risk," Georgia's utility staff said. 

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.