Why is America experiencing a manufacturing renaissance
Dozens of cranes stretch out into the muggy Georgia heat. Trains bring heavy equipment from the nearby port in Savannah. One gray cooling tower is almost finished, the other is growing. Here, around 50 kilometers south of the small town of Augusta in the southeastern United States, one of the country's largest infrastructure projects is being built: a new nuclear power plant.
It was supposed to be a showcase project, despite all the hurdles. There are also opponents of nuclear energy in the USA, but the Americans move nuclear waste and fear of accidents not nearly as much as the Germans. But there was an argument against nuclear power that was also effective in the USA: The construction of new piles was considered far too expensive, mainly because the super-stable construction material costs so much, the construction takes a long time and the technology is not standardized. Especially when you factor in the cost of potential environmental damage, nuclear power was no longer economical. This is all the more true as another energy source has become cheaper and cheaper since the fracking revolution: natural gas.
Electricity for millions of people from America's largest piles
Nevertheless, new nuclear power plants are being built in the USA for the first time since the 1970s. In Georgia, the local utility Georgia Power has been building two new piles for two years. The two existing reactors Vogtle 1 and 2 will be supplemented by Vogtle 3 and 4. Vogtle should prove that nuclear power still has a chance. With an output of 1,117 megawatts each, the two reactors are expected to produce electricity for more than a million households and companies. Each reactor will have space for 13.5 million uranium pellets - a single pellet contains more energy than 564 liters of oil. Georgia Power builds 23,000 tons of steel. When the complex is finished, Vogtle will be the largest nuclear power plant in the United States.
The American energy world is looking forward to the project with excitement. It should be significantly cheaper than other piles. But the date of completion has already been postponed by three years, the first of the two new reactors is now scheduled to go into operation in 2019, the second a year later. The costs have also increased. The electricity supplier Georgia Power, which owns almost 46 percent of the power plant and is leading the project for the partner companies, had originally targeted five billion dollars for its stake. Together with the supervisory authorities, the company has already corrected the amount to 6.1 billion. It is now estimated at $ 7.5 billion. In March, experts from the Georgia Public Service Commission were already talking of $ 8.2 billion, if you take into account that Georgia Power has to buy electricity elsewhere before Vogtle goes online. Until the construction is finished, the authorities no longer want to officially adjust the budget. This Tuesday, Georgia Power executives will have to answer for schedule and costs in a hearing before the commission.
The 99 US reactors produce 30 percent of the world's nuclear power
The United States is the largest producer of nuclear power in the world, according to the World Nuclear Association, the 99 nuclear power plants in the country generate 30 percent of the global nuclear power. They contribute 20 percent to the American electricity mix. The piles are getting older and older, no new building project has been started since 1977 until the construction of Vogtle and a sister project began in 2013. A number of old power plants have already been shut down in recent years, and 13 more reactors are about to come to an end. Five new reactors are currently under construction - all with delays. The US government is in favor of nuclear energy because it does not produce any CO₂, for US President Barack Obama it is part of his energy transition. Energy Minister Ernest Moniz calls Vogtle a "milestone": "The innovative technology in the project proves that the American nuclear industry is once again assuming a leading role."
The reason for the hope that Vogtle will become a showcase project was a new technology called Westinghouse AP1000. AP stands for Advanced Passive, which refers to so-called passive safety systems. If something unforeseen happens, the power plant switches itself off, and nobody has to intervene for up to 72 hours. The technology consists of significantly fewer individual parts, is smaller and requires fewer cables and pumps than older types of power plants. Large parts can be prefabricated in a standardized manner and only assembled at the power plant. That should save money during the construction phase.
Investors are skeptical
"The AP1000 is the safest and most economical nuclear power plant that exists in the global private sector," advertises the manufacturer Westinghouse, which is now part of Toshiba from Japan. Critics from the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, argue that it is a great risk in the already complicated construction process that the licensing authorities and energy companies have decided on a type of reactor that has never been completed anywhere in the world. Four Westinghouse AP1000 power plants are currently being built in China. The main reason for the delays in the USA is that a supplier is taking longer to produce the large power plant modules than planned.
Georgia Power is owned by the Southern Company, a utility company regulated by the state, but privately owned, and its shares are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The price has fallen by eleven percent since the beginning of the year. Shareholders fear authorities will prevent Southern Company from passing the rising costs on to customers. The construction of Vogtle is financed almost exclusively with loans. For the time being, the banks have given their nod to the project - mainly because the state gives a guarantee for a large part of the loans.
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