After 14 Years, Nuclear Reactor Online in Georgia

August 16, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

After 14 years of construction, the third nuclear reactor unit at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle has finally started delivering power to customers. It’s America’s first newly built reactor in over 30 years. 

The first new nuclear power source to be constructed in the U.S. since the 1980s has finally come online. Georgia Power fired up the third reactor at its Plant Vogtle earlier this year and commenced a months-long process of raising the power levels. The unit has finally started delivering power to the local grid near Waynesboro, about 30 miles south of Augusta. 


Two nuclear reactors at Georgia’s four-unit Plant Vogtle facility

Two nuclear reactors at Georgia’s four-unit Plant Vogtle facility. Image used courtesy of Georgia Power Company


Unit 3 offers 1.1 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, enough to power more than 500,000 homes and businesses. Georgia Power is also building a fourth unit at the plant, scheduled to come online in late 2023 or early next year. Once completed, Units 3 and 4 will boost Plant Vogtle’s status as the country’s largest nuclear power station. Georgia Power has 2.7 million customers and sources about 25% of its energy mix from Vogtle and its 1.8-GW Plant Hatch nuclear facility in Baxley. 

Units 3 and 4 mark America’s first new nuclear reactors in decades: North Carolina’s Shearon Harris plant entered commercial operation in 1987 following nine years of construction, while Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2 started construction in 1973 but didn’t come online until mid-2016. 


Video used courtesy of Georgia Power


Vogtle Unit 3’s Long Road to Completion

Construction of Units 3 and 4 started in June 2009 at a projected cost of $14 billion, with operations scheduled to begin in 2016 and 2017. However, construction delays, changes to design requirements, and budget challenges held back that timeline. Crucially, the project’s total cost had more than doubled to $30 billion. 

The plant’s first pair of reactors came online in the 1980s, totaling 2.43 GW of nameplate capacity. Units 3 and 4 add another 2.23 GW, raising Vogtle’s status as the country’s largest nuclear plant ahead of Arizona’s 4.2-GW Palo Verde facility. 

The new reactors are the first to use Westinghouse’s AP1000 Generation III+ design in the U.S. The two-loop pressurized water reactor features new passive safety functions to shut off the system without external power sources or actions by operators. 


Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design

Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design. Image used courtesy of Georgia Power Company


Plant Vogtle’s Unit 3 reached initial criticality earlier this year, a major step in the startup testing process indicating a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. From there, operators continued to raise the power to synchronize the generator with the electric grid. 

Now that Unit 3 is online, Georgia Power reports that Unit 4 is in the final stages of construction and testing and is expected to be placed in service in the fourth quarter of 2023 or the first quarter of next year. The company also said Plant Vogtle had received nuclear fuel for Unit 4, with 157 fuel assemblies required to start the system safely. 


Reactor cavity

The reactor cavity of Vogtle Unit 4. Image used courtesy of Georgia Power Company


Nuclear Power in the US

Vogtle’s expansion comes after nuclear development has mostly remained stagnant since the late 20th century following the Chornobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima accidents. America’s industry peaked in 2012 with 104 operating reactors supplying 102 GW. However, the U.S. still retains the world’s leading share of nuclear capacity, totaling 95.8 GW across 93 commercial reactors operating at more than 50 nuclear power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Nuclear accounted for 18.2% of utility-scale electricity generation, or 772 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), in 2022—consistent with historical records, claiming a 20% share since the 1990s. According to the EIA, nuclear consumption fell slightly from 8.1 to 8 quadrillion British thermal units between 2021 and 2022. The agency cited last year’s closure of Michigan’s 51-year-old Palisades plant as a driving factor for that decline. It’s one of three reactors with a combined 3 GW of capacity scheduled to retire in the coming years, including two units at Diablo Canyon in California. 

Six generating units with 4.7 GW of capacity have retired since late 2017. However, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit in 2022 to rescue plants at risk of closure due to economic factors. The program’s first round awarded $1.1 billion to Diablo Canyon’s Units 1 and 2, initially scheduled to decommission in 2024 and 2025.