Atlanta-based Southern Co. and its partners are spending an estimated $14 billion to build the first nuclear plant erected from scratch in the U.S. in a generation. The first of the new reactors at Plant Vogtle was supposed to be finished April 1, 2016, with the second reactor a year later.
Southern Co. officials have said that schedule has slipped to November 2016 for the first reactor or even early- to mid-2017. In a report filed Friday, nuclear engineer William Jacobs Jr. said he believed the first reactor will be completed no earlier than June 2017. Jacobs cautioned that additional delays are possible.
Jacobs said schedule delays could potentially drive up project and financing costs.
“The cost of a one-year delay in the project is in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Jacobs, who monitors the construction project for Georgia’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.
Delays are significant because the costs might ultimately be paid by electricity customers. There are also consequences for the nuclear industry. Utility officials have hoped that the Plant Vogtle project and two identical reactors under construction at Plant Summer in South Carolina would demonstrate nuclear plants can be built without the delays and cost overruns that dogged the industry decades ago.
Buzz Miller, the executive vice president of nuclear development at Southern Co., said during a tour of the construction site Tuesday that the plant will be economically viable even if costs increase. He said the company would focus on quality and safety over speed.
“We’re not going to plan on shortening the time schedule because getting it right is far more important,” Miller said. Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power owns roughly 46 percent of the two new reactors. The other owners include Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. Utility regulators have allowed Georgia Power to spend about $6.1 billion as its share of the project. The company now projects it will cost $6.2 billion if the first reactor comes online in November 2016.
Jacobs called the performance of the team designing and building the plant – Westinghouse Electric Co. and The Shaw Group – as “unsatisfactory” in some critical areas. He faulted Southern Co. and its contractors for failing to agree on a start-to-finish schedule. Jacobs said PSC staffers would consider additional costs caused by the lack of a long-term schedule as “imprudent,” meaning customers should not pay for them. Ultimately, elected utility commissioners decide whether to make customers absorb those costs.
Metal bars in what will become a reactor foundation were not installed correctly, leading to delays, Jacobs said. This has pushed back the pouring of concrete at the site, a key task that must be finished before other work can begin. Miller said workers have successfully conducted a test pour of concrete.
Other problems have surfaced with suppliers. Rather than assembling the reactor in the field, The Shaw Group is building prefabricated submodules in Lake Charles, La. Those subcomponents are then shipped to Georgia and welded together.
But Jacobs said the construction of modules has slipped because of design, fabrication and quality assurance problems.
Shaw Modular Solutions, part of The Shaw Group, “clearly lacked experience in the nuclear power industry and was not prepared for the rigor and attention to detail required to successfully manufacture nuclear components,” Jacobs said. A Shaw spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.