WAYNESBORO — Piece by piece, the future of America’s nuclear industry is taking shape on a plot of Burke County land that has transformed from pine tree-covered rolling hills to a colossal steel and concrete construction site.
Two of the nation’s first nuclear power reactors built in 30 years are rising out of the ground near the Savannah River at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle. A complex construction project with sky-high costs and a workforce of thousands of engineers and craftsmen are part of Georgia Power’s major investment and unwavering confidence that nuclear energy will help power the future despite the industry’s challenges.
“As we look to the future, we have to think about the time horizon for this. We have to be planning for decades,” said Buzz Miller, the executive vice president of nuclear development for Southern Co., the operating company of Georgia Power, and president of Southern Nuclear Development.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a combined license for both construction and operation of the new reactors called Vogtle 3 and 4 in February 2012. During steady economic years of the early 2000s, several other companies wanted to build new nuclear units but Vogtle was one of the few to pursue construction, making it the only four-unit nuclear facility in the nation when complete.
On the site adjacent to Vogtle’s two existing units, about 3,000 workers assemble giant modular components. This week, workers and welding robots continued assembling a 68-foot-tall metal encasement for several giant tanks for Vogtle 3. Shipments of submodules from the Lake Charles, La., facility where they are built have been delayed.
In January, the completed building will be rolled outside the “module assembly building” where it’s being pieced together. A towering derrick known as the world’s largest crane will move it into place, marking the project’s next major milestone, Miller said. The encasement is the largest module the derrick will move.
One-third complete, the new Westinghouse-designed AP1000 reactors were first scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2016 and 2017. The startup dates have been extended to the fourth quarters of 2017 and 2018.
The AP1000 is a 1,100-megawatt, electric, pressurized-water reactor that includes passive safety features that would cool the reactor after an accident without the need for electricity or human intervention.
Georgia Power has a 45.7 percent share of the projected total cost. For its share, the price tag for Vogtle 3 and 4 has risen to $4.8 billion, about $380 million higher than original estimates.
Scanning the construction site this week, Miller said 2014 will be a year of “vertical progress” as rebar and concrete for the nuclear structures and cooling towers reach toward the sky. A 600-foot cooling tower for Unit 3 should be complete midsummer.
The work and the investment aren’t unnoticed. Miller knows Vogtle is a closely-watched project, and he hopes it will lead the way for the nuclear industry to expand in the U.S.
Natural gas prices, a big competitor for nuclear power, have plummeted since Georgia Power first proposed nuclear growth but Miller said he’d still build new units if Georgia Power could do it all over again.
“When you’re building giant infrastructure, you can’t really look back,” Miller said. “Nuclear’s still going to be one of the solutions for us.”