Progress slips again at Vogtle nuclear plant

COVID cases among workers tops 1,000

Georgia Power has fallen months further behind on critical steps to start the first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, despite having last revised its schedule only three months ago.

And measures to halt COVID-19 within the project’s massive workforce continue to complicate construction.

The utility said it still expects to meet a state regulatory deadline to have the first reactor in commercial operation in November 2021. But its wiggle room for doing so has become increasingly thin. Missing the deadline little more than a year from now would increase already soaring costs, which could end up in the electric bills of 2.6 million customers.

In a filing this week with the Georgia Public Service Commission, Georgia Power said it expects to conduct a crucial system test at Vogtle three months later than called for under a schedule it filed in July. It’s the third delay this year for the test.

And loading of nuclear fuel for the first reactor, a pivotal milestone, has been pushed back four months to April of 2021.

The Vogtle project already is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, with customers at risk of having to cover those cost. State staffers and independent monitors have warned about the potential for still more delays, even before factoring in effects from the pandemic.

In the spring, with coronavirus cases growing and worker absenteeism rising, Georgia Power took steps to increase social distancing by cutting nearly 2,000 of the 9,000 workers on site, though it said it was speeding up some departures that would have taken place anyway.

So far, more than 1,000 Vogtle workers have tested positive during the pandemic, according to the company’s latest filing. That’s up from more than 800 in late August. Still, the company reported that the number of positive cases has declined in recent months.

About 6,600 Vogtle workers isolated at some point after potentially being in close contact to someone with the virus.

Union officials have praised the company for virus-fighting measures it enacted.

Meanwhile, Georgia Power’s continued shifts in predictions about when it will complete scheduled Vogtle milestones have made it “impossible to determine where the project really stands,” said Kurt Ebersbach of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has represented groups critical of Vogtle’s impact on consumers and the state.

The PSC’s five elected members will decide how much of Vogtle’s cost overruns will end up in the bills of customers of Georgia Power, a government regulated monopoly. Two seats on the PSC board are open for election in November, and there are six candidates running.