Georgia’s new nuclear reactor is a long time coming. Plant Vogtle Unit 4 began producing commercial power on April 29th. This follows the opening of Unit 3 last summer.

These were the first new nuclear reactors since 2016, and the last new large reactors under construction in the United States.

All of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s currently-issued permits for constructing large reactors were issued before 2010. More large reactors have little chance of being built, at least for the foreseeable future, as none are currently under construction and there have been no announced plans to build any in the ensuing decade and a half 

Because no new large reactors are under construction, the industry will have little chance to learn and improve the process following the financial and regulatory compliance issues involved in building the Vogtle reactors. Regulatory issues are a major limitation in the nuclear industry. The goalposts on compliance often move during construction, leading to costly pauses and last-minute changes. 

The reactors were late and far over budget with $14 billion in projected costs and $35 billion in actual costs. The project was also more than seven years behind schedule. But, the new units will also provide 60 to 80 years of reliable electricity for Georgia ratepayers. 

Thanks to the newest reactor, Plant Vogtle will now be the largest nuclear power plant in the United States, and the country’s second-largest power plant by capacity at 4,800 megawatts (MW). It is second only to the 7,079 MW Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. Although it doesn’t equal the Grand Coulee’s potential generating capacity, Plant Vogtle is likely to exceed the dam in actual output because of its capacity factor. 

Capacity factor is the percentage of time that a power plant is generating at its maximum capacity. Nuclear reactors have incredibly high capacity factors—with 92.5% reliability throughout the year. Because of this, a nuclear plant can often produce more energy in a given year than a much higher nameplate capacity facility. This is beneficial to the electrical grid because this capacity can be consistently relied upon.

Plant Vogtle is projected to generate more than 30 million MW hours of electricity every year and will be one of, if not the largest, electricity-generating facilities in the country. 

There are certainly lessons to be learned from the development process for both Vogtle reactors. The primary lesson is that for new nuclear to be successful, a streamlined and consistent regulatory framework is essential. Nuclear reactors have incredible potential to benefit the electrical grid, and poor regulation is one of the major barriers to the deployment of new reactors.