SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — Buzz Miller has a finely furnished office in Birmingham, Ala., and another in Atlanta.
But on most days, Southern Nuclear’s executive vice president for nuclear development can be found in less corporate quarters in Burke County, where he oversees one of the world’s most watched construction projects.
Plant Vogtle’s $14 billion expansion – which includes the first new commercial reactors built in the U.S. in decades – has accelerated rapidly since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved final permits in February.
“There is a certain simplicity in the way it’s being done that sets the standard for nuclear construction,” said Miller, an Auburn University-educated engineer. “The concept, modular construction, is much like a prefabricated house. We’re building big chunks, and then we pick them up and set them in place.”
Just last week, testing began on a mammoth crane, one of the largest in the world, that can lift 1,500 tons at a time. The machine, which will move prefabricated components into place, is just one of many new tools that represent a resurrected nuclear age.
The Vogtle expansion evolved from a simple need to diversify energy production. The company wanted to combine lessons learned from the past with the best technology of the future.
When the studies were completed, the choice was obvious. “The company decided, let’s build a nuclear plant,” he said.
At the Vogtle site, where as many as 2,200 workers come and go daily, the two emerging “nuclear islands” that will house the new reactors are surrounded by offices, equipment, concrete plants and security gates.
Rising from it all, just a few hundred yards from the giant crane, is a steel structure – taller than a 10-story building – known simply as “MAB,” or modular assembly building.
Inside, workers weld together sections of a 70-foot-tall component that will house piping, maintenance corridors and other functions of the Unit 3 reactor. It is designed to be locked into place like a piece of a giant puzzle.
“When it’s done, they take the end off this building, pick it up and roll it out – just like they do with the space shuttle,” Miller said.
Although the project is progressing, its path has taken plenty of unforeseen twists and turns since site preparation began several years ago.
The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan, focused global attention on the nuclear industry, yielding calls in the U.S. for more regulation. Concern over lack of a national plan for spent nuclear fuel led the NRC to freeze decisions on nuclear construction licenses.
Site-specific Vogtle issues include noncompliant rebar and a series of proposed license amendments and stalled negotiations for a federal loan guarantee that would provide $8.3 billion in financing.
From Miller’s perspective, it comes with the territory.
“We’re first, and obviously a lot of learning is taking place as we go along,” he said. “There has been a lot of focus on the negative, but there is also a lot of positive.”
The biggest challenges, he said, involve re-establishing a nuclear culture that has been dormant for decades and ensuring materials supplied for the Vogtle reactors meet all the standards.
“One of the hardest things is making sure every piece has the level of quality required for that part,” he said. “They have to meet the challenge, and the challenge is making it the nuclear way.”
The company has expanded its oversight and quality assurance programs, which place inspectors in places where key parts are being manufactured – including venues as far away as Korea and Italy.
“It’s like triple-checking, over and over, everything that’s done,” he said. “When you do that, you find things – and you deal with them.”
The next step
The next major milestone in the Vogtle expansion is expected to commence later this fall, when the first “nuclear concrete” is poured into the steel-ribbed foundation of Unit 3.
It will be a big deal, Miller said, and like everything else, it has to be done right the first time.
“In a project like this, even the concrete isn’t just concrete,” he said. “It’s nuclear concrete. The size of the aggregate, even the temperature controls, are all part of it.”
The upcoming pour will require one continuous, 40-hour stream of specialized, liquefied concrete that will be made by an onsite batch plant.
The material will be convoyed to the foundation site in trucks, and carefully emptied into a 90-foot hole that has taken years of work – and billions of dollars – to prepare.
Put simply, there is no room for error.
“Whatever you are putting together, there are standards and codes that cover it, and you follow them,” Miller said. “There is a lot of practice involved.”
As evidence, he pointed to a remote corner of the construction site, at a structure that resembled the foundation for a small reactor.
It wasn’t another reactor, but a miniature copy of the Unit 3 nuclear island, complete with welded rebar and concrete walls. It will be a practice site for the autumn concrete pour – a dry run of sorts.
“It will let us check the concrete, making sure it’s right, and we can see how it pours and dries,” Miller said, noting that quality control includes scrutiny by Southern Nuclear, the Shaw Group contractors and – ultimately – the NRC and its three full-time inspectors at the site.
The Vogtle project’s completion in 2016 and 2017, he said, will help guide other companies wanting to pursue nuclear power.
Miller said the continuing progress at the site is a sign of an energy project that will become an asset to Georgia for decades to come.
“We’ve done this eyes wide open, every step of the way,” he said. “But if you look around, we’ve done it. It’s all starting to come together.”