SHELL BLUFF, Ga. --- Despite a rainy autumn, construction crews continue to cut deeper into Burke County's sandy soil to prepare for a project that will make Plant Vogtle the first U.S. nuclear site with four commercial reactors.
"At this point, we have 76 months until the first new reactor will start up," said Beth Thomas, a spokeswoman for Southern Nuclear, the plant's parent company.
Vogtle's existing units 1 and 2, which went online in the late 1980s, will be supplemented with two new reactors scheduled to go online in 2016 and 2017 if permitting and construction go according to schedule, she told visitors during a media tour Thursday.
The 42-acre construction zone has bustled with activity since August, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an Early Site Permit allowing limited work to be performed. Crews are working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to move almost 4 million cubic yards of dirt in preparation for above-ground construction that could begin in 2011 or 2012.
The ambitious schedule would put Vogtle ahead of similar nuclear projects in Illinois, Virginia and Mississippi and would make it the first U.S. site with four commercial nuclear power reactors. Currently, the Palo Verde plant in Arizona, with three units, has the most reactors on a single U.S. site.
As part of the expansion, company officials are re-examining emergency preparedness and security programs at the site.
Clint Hartfield, Vogtle's emergency planning coordinator, said the existing emergency planning zone, which extends in a 10-mile radius from the plant, will remain intact once the additional units are online. Residents within that circle are issued a special radio that can be activated in an emergency.
Security within the site is always being re-examined and strengthened, he said.
On Thursday, for example, convoys of 18-wheelers arrived at the plant hauling preformed concrete barriers that will be installed around the containment buildings and other sensitive areas around units 1 and 2.
As part of the licensing process for the new units, a series of emergency drills and exercises will be scheduled, including a May 19 event that will be monitored and graded by the NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The site preparation work under way involved about 320 workers in September. That work force has grown to more than 600. At the peak of construction in 2013-14, more than 3,000 workers are expected to be at the site.
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