Vogtle nuclear project could face more delays

State utility regulators were warned Tuesday of possibly more delays in bringing two new nuclear reactors on line, despite recent assurances from Georgia Power executives that they weren’t expecting any.

Meanwhile, a financial analyst for the state said the nuclear expansion is not the most cost effective option for Georgia in hindsight, but he cautioned that it is too late to backtrack on the project.

The analyst cited the massive growth in supplies of relatively cheap natural gas, which have caused other utilities to cancel or delay nuclear plans in favor of gas-fired plants.

The updated long-term schedule for Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle expansion shows additional delays that may push back the reactors startup dates by another three months into January 2018 and January 2019.

Steven Roetger, an analyst for the Georgia Public Service Commission, told regulators on Tuesday that “significant challenges to meet this schedule remain,” citing delivery timetables for major components. He said operational dates “remain far from certain.”

Georgia Power said earlier this year the $14 billion project will take 19 months longer than originally thought, mostly because of regulatory and pre-construction delays. The utility maintains that the reactors will start producing electricity in late 2017 and 2018.

Georgia Power and a group of municipal and cooperative utilities are building the twin reactors, the first built from scratch in nearly 30 years. The utility’s share of the project is $6.1 billion.

Most major equipment for the first of the two reactors has arrived at the construction site or is on its way, said William Jacobs, the project’s independent construction monitor.

But he said the key to the current schedule is delivery and installation of two major components: a building to house plant equipment, and for a “shield” building that protects the reactor vessel.

The components are being built at a site in Louisiana operated by Chicago Bridge & Iron, one of the project’s two main contractors. CB&I bought the Shaw Group, which had a history of delays in building components for Vogtle. Jacobs said he recently visited the site and saw “many improvements.”

“I’m optimistic that they will be able to improve their production rate,” Jacobs said. “It remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient to support the current schedule.”

Separately, consultant Philip Hayet told the commission that a nuclear plant is no longer economic compared to building gas-fired plants when factoring in total project costs, estimated fuel prices and the potential that the U.S. government may tax carbon emissions.

His exact calculations were not publicly released because they involve proprietary financial information from the utility. Still, his conclusion was clear.

“… If a decision had to be made today to build a new nuclear project, it would not be justified on the basis of these results,” Hayet testified. He monitors the economics of the Vogtle project for the PSC.

For Georgia, Hayet said, finishing the new reactors is the cheapest financial option at this point, but he added the project is a warning for other utilities considering new construction any time soon.

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