Georgia Utility Regulator: More Delays Likely for Vogtle Nuclear Plant

Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear plant expansion is already years behind
schedule and billions of dollars over budget, and it may get
delayed once again.

The Georgia Public Service Commission Public Interest Advocacy
Staff this week published an evaluation of the most recent
reassessment of project timeline and cost for Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
The good news: Staff concluded that the latest analysis by Southern
Nuclear Company, the Southern Company subsidiary overseeing plant
construction, was “generally sound.” That’s notable, seeing as
Staff
recommended canceling Vogtle
when the commission voted on a
revised budget and schedule in December 2017.

The bad news: Staff doesn’t believe the baseline timeline to
begin operations is “achievable.” That target was May 2021 and 2022
for the two reactors. Even commercial operation by November 2021
and 2022 would be “a challenge to achieve,” according to the
Staff. 

As for the pricetag, Staff believes “there is a chance” of
hitting $17.1 billion in capital costs, not including financing
costs. Further delays would increase the project cost, however.

Delay and cost overruns have dogged Vogtle, which started the
permitting process in 2005. Utility Georgia Power, the major owner
and offtaker for the plant, originally filed to use the new plant
for capacity in the
2016 to 2017 timeframe
.

Since then, Vogtle 3 and 4 have earned the dubious distinction
of last surviving nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. They
are also the first to use the new AP1000 reactor from Westinghouse,
a company whose
2017 bankruptcy
threw a further delay into the mix. Until then,
Westinghouse had also served as primary contractor for the
project. 

The ongoing struggle prompted Department of Energy Secretary
Rick Perry to dedicate another $3.7 billion in loan support in
March. The DOE had already committed $5 billion in loan guarantees
as of 2017.

The new report indicates that Georgia Power has prioritized
speed of execution to avoid paying for more delays.

That decision could cause unintended consequences of its own,
the authors note. To accelerate the project, the company is
beginning system completion and testing before finishing up the
bulk of electrical, mechanical and civil engineering work. The
strategy risks “stacking of craft,” a term for the physical
congestion that ensues as crews performing different types of work
navigate the same space in the power block.

“Staff’s concern is that the approach of achieving a minimal
schedule at all costs could result in additional costs to the
Project without achieving the commensurate reduction in Schedule
needed to offset these additional costs,” the report observes.

Productivity in recent months has not met “achievable”
expectations, the report notes, raising concerns about lower
productivity and absenteeism getting in the way of meeting those
goals in future months.

Already, the remaining work is expected to be 2.5 times more
dollar-intensive than construction thus far. Workers have completed
77 percent of the project at a cost of $9.86 billion. The remaining
23 percent is budgeted to cost $7.243 billion, assuming it does not
run over. 

The potential causes of delay at this point have less to do with
nuclear technology itself than with the nuts and bolts of
completing massive construction projects. It doesn’t help that the
U.S. workforce has exceedingly little experience with massive
nuclear construction, as the most recent completion, Tennessee
Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2, began construction in the
1970s.

“Ultimately, we need to move away from nuclear power plants as
these big infrastructure projects with lots of people doing
artisanal craftmanship and move toward factory fabrication,” said
Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute
and a researcher studying how innovation could make nuclear power
cheaper.

Despite the bloated pricetag, round-the-clock production over
decades of project lifetime could yield a favorable levelized cost
of energy, Lovering added. If completed, these units will also be
the first to benefit from a federal production tax credit for new
nuclear generation.

Even if Vogtle does meet the challenging timelines, it is
unlikely that similarly large plants will be built in the U.S.
going forward, especially after South Carolina’s V.C. Summer plant
fell through and left ratepayers with billions of dollars of
charges for a project that never generated a kilowatt-hour. Going
forward,
small modular reactors
(SMRs) offer a lower cost route for
nuclear plant development, but they have not yet cleared the
regulatory process.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
Georgia Utility Regulator: More Delays Likely for Vogtle Nuclear Plant