EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment of a 10-part series on the top stories of 2012.
Plant Vogtle’s closely watched nuclear expansion has accelerated rapidly – and in some cases, controversially – since federal authorities licensed the $14 billion project in February.
The regulatory milestone involved the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first “combined operating license,” authorizing both the construction and operation of the nation’s first new commercial power reactors in decades.
Since then, as many as 2,200 workers have packed the site daily, assembling buildings and equipment, installing steel rebar and preparing for the massive amounts of concrete needed for the new Westinghouse AP-1000 passive cooling reactors – heralded as the world’s safest nuclear design.
During the year, one of the largest cranes in the world, capable of lifting 1,500 tons at a time, was assembled. The 560-foot-tall crane’s five-person crew is being trained to move massive reactor components arriving from as far away as Japan, Italy and South Korea.
The completion of the foundation area was not without challenges, nor was it expected to be.
Issues including unlevel concrete and rebar that differed from the federally approved reactor design document were resolved through license amendments affirmed by the NRC. The plant’s owners have said there are likely to be dozens of amendments to resolve issues that arise during construction and to help make the formal design standard safer in the long run.
Because Plant Vogtle is the first U.S. site to use the design, it was designated as the nation’s “reference site,” which will set the industry standard for future projects.
Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis spawned a series of “lessons learned” that the NRC wants to incorporate into its nuclear safety and licensing programs.
When the panel voted 4-1 in February to license the Vogtle project, Chairman Greg Jaczko was the lone dissenting vote. He also opposed the next license, issued in March for two reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina.
Both licenses, he contended in a lengthy statement that drew international attention, were issued prematurely and should have included all of the Fukushima-related safety enhancements.
“Without a binding requirement in the license, we know from past experience that licensees may be relieved from compliance based on cost considerations or delay compliance for extended periods of time,” Jaczko said. “We have seen this time and again.”
The Vogtle construction site played host to two dozen journalists from major Korean television stations and newspapers; a delegation from China, where four AP-1000 reactors are under construction; and a group led by Bernard Bigot, the chairman of France’s Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy Commission.
Plant Vogtle, Bigot said during his visit, is being watched as a symbol of America’s reawakened nuclear program.
“If something is going well here, all nations benefit,” he said. “And if something is wrong, everyone shares.”
France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources – the highest percentage of any nation – and is second only to the U.S. in the number of commercial reactors.
In particular, Bigot said, the world will be watching to see whether its operator – Southern Nuclear – can complete the project safely, on time and within budget.
Those issues remained in the spotlight throughout 2012, with lawsuits over $425 million in disputed costs and disagreements over who is responsible for any overages.
Despite those unresolved financial issues, Georgia Power officials have testified to the Georgia Public Service Commission that the project remains both within budget and on schedule for its proposed commercial operation dates in 2016 and 2017.
The contractors, however, have advised that design changes and other factors could delay those dates by as much as a year. Southern Nuclear officials disagree with those projections.