Plant Vogtle engineers gain insight from similar reactors being built in China

SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — Even before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses the addition of two reactors at Plant Vogtle, major non-nuclear components of the project are already taking shape in Burke County.

“We’re on schedule, even if we can’t begin full nuclear construction until we have our combined operating license,” said Todd Terrell, Southern Co.’s nuclear development communication director, during a site tour Tuesday.

Company officials believe the license will be issued in December and are pushing ahead with other facets of the $14.8 billion expansion, including assembly of a massive steel bowl that will become the bottom of the containment vessel for Unit 3.

Unlike the original Vogtle project, which required 14,000 workers, the expansion will require a peak workforce of just 3,500 who will assemble prefabricated components imported from Asia and Europe.

The streamlined assembly will use one of the world’s newest reactor designs – the Westinghouse AP1000 – whose features include an emergency cooling water supply above each containment vessel that can be activated without electricity or pumps.

Although the AP1000 has never been built in the U.S., Vogtle’s engineers are gaining valuable insight from China, the only place in the world where AP1000 units are already under construction.

The Sanmen I nuclear reactor in China’s Zhejiang province, more than 10,000 miles from Burke County, is expected to become the world’s first AP1000 unit to go online when it is completed in 2013. It is one of four such units already under way in China.

“Those projects are 18 to 24 months ahead of us,” Terrell said. “But we are watching the progress of those units and are benefiting from any lessons to be learned.”

Because all AP1000 reactors use an identical design and involve identical parts from the same suppliers, Southern Nuclear has stationed observers in China to watch for any issues that might ward off complications with the Vogtle project.

One change that has already occurred at Vogtle was the process used to build the containment vessel’s bottom head.

The Chinese built the first one upside down, but challenges associated with flipping the dome-shaped structure over to install it prompted a decision to build other ones right-side up.

Engineers at Vogtle followed that lead, and the bottom head for Unit 3 is now being assembled in a bowl-like fashion.

Vogtle’s units 3 and 4 are expected to begin producing electricity in 2016 and 2017. In addition to 1,100 megawatts per unit, the project is also expected to generate $35 million per year in property taxes for Burke County and about 800 permanent jobs.

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