State staff: Georgia Power nuclear timeline ‘significantly challenged’

UPDATED with Georgia Power comment

Georgia Power’s nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle is falling further behind schedule, according to a filing Friday by Georgia Public Service Commission staff and consultants.

Unless performance improves considerably, the latest deadlines for commercial operation of two new reactors by November 2021 and November 2022 are “significantly challenged,” according to the filing. It also flagged safety risks for workers.

The project is already years behind its original schedule and billions of dollars over budget. More delays could add costs.

And if the price tag rises, electric consumers in much of Georgia could be at risk of increases in their monthly bills. Ultimately, elected members of the PSC will decide how much of the costs get passed along to Georgia Power customers. Many electric membership corporations and city utilities in Georgia are also connected to the project and will have to make decisions about how to recoup costs.

Tom Fanning, the chief executive officer of Georgia Power parent Southern Company, told analysts in late October that the company remains focused on the currently approved deadlines. He said there was no change in the  total estimated cost to complete the project.

On Saturday, a Georgia Power spokesman wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, “Georgia Power continues to expect that we will achieve the in-service dates of November 2021 and November 2022 for Vogtle units 3 and 4, respectively.”

PSC staff and consultants said in the new filing that they have difficulty estimating when the new reactors will be fully in use because a schedule Georgia Power submitted only a few months ago was not reasonable and is “no longer relevant to the project.”

The project is already “significantly behind the schedule” that was just set in April, staff wrote.

Workers at the site south of Augusta have not been able to achieve the rates called for in what was an overly aggressive schedule aimed at avoiding further delays, according to the filing.

In fact, the project’s productivity has been reduced by Georgia Power’s strategy on that front, staff concluded.

There are other risks tied to the company’s decision to conduct testing in parts of the plant where construction is ongoing, staff said.

Close coordination is needed to make sure workers aren’t in danger, according to the filing. It cited two incidents earlier this month. During testing a valve wasn’t closed as required “and water entered the room where electricians were working. Two electricians were injured while trying to exit the room.”

A day earlier, according to the filing, argon gas was vented into a room where construction workers were. “An air quality alarm went off and the room was evacuated.”

PSC staff and consultants concluded that it still makes economic sense to continue the Vogtle expansion, but that if the project is delayed by another year and a half, that would no longer be the case.

Georgia Power already has spent 10 years and incurred billions of dollars in costs to get as far as it has. That includes $2 billion in financing costs already recovered from customers through a special fee in monthly bills, years before the new reactors produce power.