U.S. regulators may increase oversight at Georgia nuclear project

Aerial photo from March of 2019 show cooling towers for Plant Vogtle's units (from left) 4, 3, 2, and 1 south of Augusta. In June of 2021, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched a special inspection of work on units 3 and 4 that are under construction. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Aerial photo from March of 2019 show cooling towers for Plant Vogtle's units (from left) 4, 3, 2, and 1 south of Augusta. In June of 2021, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched a special inspection of work on units 3 and 4 that are under construction. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Federal regulators say they are considering increasing oversight of Georgia Power’s nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle, a long-troubled and deeply delayed project that threatens to saddle Georgians with billions of dollars in cost overruns.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday released its findings from a special inspection conducted earlier in the summer at the project south of Augusta. The not-routine review, the first of its kind on the project after more than a decade of construction, followed up on the company’s disclosure earlier this year about quality control issues.

Among the issues were electrical cables and systems apparently installed incorrectly, including too closely together, raising the risk that a fire could knock out redundant safety-related equipment. The cables were related to reactor coolant pumps and equipment designed to safely shut down the nuclear reactor.

Also of concern: Workers knew about some of the issues but didn’t flag them in a system designed to ensure that problems are handled correctly. Instead, the issues weren’t solved sooner and were repeated.

The NRC’s report said the apparent violations of federal requirements will lead it to increase its Vogtle oversight if it decides to finalize its findings at the current level. The company has 90 days to respond to the report and challenge its conclusions.

Georgia Power’s sister company, Southern Nuclear, is reviewing the NRC’s report, spokesman John Kraft wrote in an email. “Many of these issues” were already self-reported to the federal agency, and work to make fixes has been underway for months.

“We welcome additional oversight and are in line with NRC’s recommendations to ensure we meet our number one objective — to bring these units online safely and reliably,” Kraft wrote. He said Georgia Power doesn’t believe increased surveillance will affect the project’s timing or costs.

An NRC spokesperson said he couldn’t speculate on what would be included in the increased surveillance.

The NRC has a color-coded system to identify the significance of its findings, ranging from green to greater than green, white, yellow and red. It preliminarily rated as “white” the company’s failure to promptly identify continued cable separation problems and “widespread deficiencies in installation of seismic supports and structural components” and to make timely corrections. A “greater than green” rating was preliminarily assigned to the failure to maintain proper separation of electrical equipment.

The agency said the issues didn’t pose an immediate safety concern because the new reactors aren’t in operation yet and haven’t been loaded with nuclear fuel.

Dave Lochbaum, a former instructor for the NRC and the retired director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, reviewed what the NRC reported.

“The good news is it was caught,” he said, but “it would have been nicer if it was caught faster.”

Increased NRC oversight by itself won’t delay the project, Lochbaum said. But “more NRC eyes will be looking at the plant and turning over more rocks,” potentially finding additional problems that could take more time to fix, extending the project’s timeline.

What isn’t known, he said, is whether the issues already found are “the tip of the iceberg.”

Georgia Power has repeatedly missed its timelines for adding two reactors at Vogtle. The units are to be the first major commercial nuclear reactors built from scratch in the United States in the last 30 years.

Last month, the company’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., announced more delays and said its share of the costs had increased by nearly half a billion dollars. Only a few months earlier Southern had been holding to its prediction that the first reactor would be in operation this November, with the second a year later. Now, it projects the second quarter of 2022 for the first, and the first three months of 2023 for the second reactor. They were originally slated to be in operation in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Monitors and staff for the Georgia Public Service Commission predict that electricity from the new reactors will be more expensive than that from competing sources. Supporters of the project say it will provide decades of reliable electricity generation, without emissions tied to climate change.

The construction costs of the Vogtle expansion have yet to be rolled into the bills of Georgia Power customers. But for years, consumers have paid fees for a portion of both the project’s financing costs and the company’s profits on it.

Vogtle’s co-owners include not-for-profit affiliates of Georgia electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, whose customers are also likely to be hit by the rising costs.