Jeff Quick has the unique distinction of being the only person to have operated all four units at Plant Vogtle.

The control room operator began his career in the 1980s as a laborer, but his ties to Vogtle run even deeper. Quick grew up in Waynesboro, Georgia, the home of what is America’s largest generator of clean energy.

“I’ve watched the development of the farm land that I knew as a child into this incredible nuclear facility,” he said.

Quick stood before hundreds of people Friday at an event to officially mark the completion of Vogtle Units 3 & 4. The latter unit began commercial operation in April.

To many, the challenging and controversial project represents hope against the threat of climate change and a gateway to America’s nuclear ambitions. Vogtle 3 & 4 are the first nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. in decades. To others, it’s a boondoggle of a project which cost billions more and took years longer than originally projected.

But Friday’s event, which drew Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, elected officials representing Georgia, along with industry and labor, struck a celebratory tone.

It was also a tribute to the more than 35,000 people who helped build Vogtle.

“At peak construction, I understand there were 9,000 workers on site,” marveled Granholm as she addressed the audience. “Years of persistence got us to this moment.”

Tim Hall was one of thousands of skilled workers involved in building Vogtle Units 3 & 4. He is also a 26-year member of the Augusta, Georgia-based plumbers and steamfitters union. Hall said each trade faced challenges over the course of the project, including weather, communication, logistics and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Hall said these challenges were overcome due to a sense of pride and commitment, along with “knowing that we were working towards something that hasn’t been done in over 35 years.”

For Hall, punching in alongside fellow tradespeople each day reminded him of the journey of his own stepfather, who worked on the construction of Vogtle Units 1 & 2.

“I can remember my mother loading my brother and I up and driving us out here, parking right over where that building is, and watching all the tradespeople come in and out with my stepfather, Hall said.

Toni Ward-Buxton is yet another homegrown story. She grew up in the backyard of Vogtle and passed it every day on the way to school.

Ward-Buxton is currently an Organizational Effectiveness Coordinator at Vogtle 3 & 4 for Southern Nuclear but has previously held positions from Maintenance Supervisor to Nuclear Electrician at the plant.

She helped build Vogtle. Now her son wants to follow in her footsteps.

“Working on the Vogtle project has given me the confidence to keep reaching,” she told the audience.

As much jubilation as there was Friday, lofty goals remain.

The Biden Administration estimates the U.S. will need to triple its nuclear capacity in order to reach net-zero by 2050.

“To all of you, who dreamed and toiled to make this happen, you are both the generals and the foot soldiers on the front line in this battle against the most relentless foe, which is climate change,” stated Granholm.

Recent policy actions aim to scale up the U.S. nuclear industry. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) both carry provisions to benefit nuclear power. Since both items became law, companies across the U.S. have announced 29 new or expanded nuclear facilities, Granholm said.

But lessons learned from Vogtle could result in cheaper and faster nuclear projects. Jigar Shah, who heads up the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office (LPO), noted on Twitter that Vogtle Unit 4 came in 30% cheaper than Unit 3, showing that progress is possible.

“This project is a prime example of how first-of-a-kind challenges can become nth-of-a-kind successes,” said Granholm.

“We can do hard things. We can build big things,” said Southern Company Chairman and CEO Chris Womack.

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