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Vogtle’s contractors signal more delays

Contractors working on an expansion at a nuclear plant in eastern Georgia now say the reactors’ start-up date may be delayed a year, possibly leading to higher utility bills for consumers.

Worker training, increased project oversight and stiffer regulatory requirements are chief reasons behind the delay, tacking on six months’ worth of additional labor costs, Georgia Power has said. The project’s main contractors say the delays could be even longer, with the first reactor starting up in early-to-mid 2017 and the second one a year later.

Officials with Georgia Power and its sister company, Southern Nuclear, said they disagreed with the contractors new estimated schedule, but acknowledged that any delay could lead to higher customer bills. Delays could lead to additional labor costs. “That’s why we’re working aggressively with the contractor to manage the project, manage the costs and manage the schedule,” said Kyle Leach, Georgia Power’s director of resource policy and planning. Georgia utility regulators would have to approve any increase to customer bills.

The first of the $14 billion reactors was originally scheduled to be finished in April 2016, and the second one a year later. Regulatory and other pre-construction delays had already changed the estimate to six months later than that.

The delay had lead to a 1 percent increase in Georgia Power’s $6.1 billion portion of the project, but customers currently are not paying any of those additional costs because the utility has not asked utility regulators for permission to recoup that money.

David McKinney, Southern Nuclear’s vice president of construction support for Vogtle 3 and 4, revealed the contractors new estimated dates of “early to mid 2017, 2018” in a hearing Tuesday before the Georgia Public Service Commission.

The company continues to negotiate those dates with the contractors, said McKinney, who testified that there’s “potential for making up time.” Both sides have sued each other in separate disputes. The first is over paying for delays associated with backfilling two excavation sites. The second stems from delays getting certain key licenses to build Vogtle. Once those commercial issues are resolved, McKinney said, it will be easier to set a firm, long-term schedule.

The new reactors at Vogtle are the first to be built from scratch in the United States in 30 years. Georgia Power officials acknowledged that the project is under intense regulatory scrutiny from a cost and safety standpoint.

Workers are hoping to pour several hundred thousand cubic yards of concrete for the foundation of Vogtle Unit 3 during the third week of December. The process, originally scheduled for May, will use nearly two-dozen concrete trucks and take nearly two days to complete. Known as the “nuclear island,” the concrete will form the foundation for the reactors.

“We’re not going to pour concrete for this project until we get it right,” McKinney said.