Georgia regulators raise fresh concerns about nuclear project’s timing

UPDATED: Georgia regulators are raising fresh doubts about Georgia Power’s latest timeline for completing the nuclear power expansion at Plant Vogtle, in part because of lingering risks, productivity slips and concerns about aging equipment.

The Vogtle project is already years behind scheduled and billions of dollars over budget. Virtually anyone in the state who pays an electric bill is likely to be on the hook for some of the costs, which have increased with repeated delays.

Public Service Commission staff wrote in a report released Tuesday that it doesn’t believe it’s achievable for Georgia Power to have two new reactors in service by the company’s latest schedule of May of 2021 and 2022, respectively. Regulators concluded it also will be a challenge for Georgia Power to make the state’s approved deadlines of November of 2021 and 2022.

Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson on Tuesday night referred an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter to the November dates and said, “We have every expectation we will meet those deadlines.” He added that the company’s May deadlines are “still achievable.” In an earlier email he wrote that about 8,000 workers currently are on site, a record for the project south of Augusta.

Originally, the last of the new reactors was supposed to be in full operation by April of 2017.

Now, regulators say they are concerned that some parts, such as valves and pumps, have been sitting so long without effective maintenance that they won’t work or will be out of warranty, adding more costs.

And in order to meet the project’s already pushed-back timeline, the company is taking approaches “inconsistent with Staff’s collective experience in nuclear construction and large plant construction.”

Those maneuvers — including premature focus on systems testing before more construction is finished — could raise the risk of further delays, according to the PSC staff.

Critical equipment could be damaged if it is operated during testing without all the instruments and safety features that would be present with a complete system, it warned. Staff also raised concerns about bottlenecks of workers, which the company has tried to avoid by using a larger night shift.

Other concerns include higher worker absentee rates and much lower than planned productivity rates for mechanical and electrical trades.

Still, regulators concluded that if the company manages to complete the project on its latest schedule there is “a chance” it won’t go over budget again, in part because Georgia Power’s latest estimate includes $1.4 billion in contingency funds.

Staff also wrote that planning schedules include more data and that "generally sound" methods were used by Southern Nuclear Company to evaluate the project's future costs and timing. SNC, like Georgia Power, is part of Atlanta-based Southern Company.