‘Unusual’ pipe support omission behind new Vogtle delay, witness says

Critical pipe support bracing in Unit 3 was not installed to begin with, witnesses testify Tuesday
A cooling tower of Plant Vogtle in Burke County near Waynesboro is seen on Friday, October 14, 2022.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A cooling tower of Plant Vogtle in Burke County near Waynesboro is seen on Friday, October 14, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Vibration issues revealed last week inside one of Plant Vogtle’s two new nuclear units occurred because critical pipe support bracing was not installed, witnesses at a state hearing said Tuesday, calling the omission “unusual” and foreshadowing the possibility of more delays as testing on the unit progresses.

Another witness panel before the Public Service Commission, meanwhile, questioned the value of the entire project and presented testimony showing Georgia Power’s customers will pay far more for electricity in years to come as a result of Vogtle’s delays and cost overruns.

The Plant Vogtle expansion is the largest construction project in Georgia’s history, and one that could impact millions of residents. But the project, the only commercial nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S. in the past 30 years, has been plagued by challenges.

Once completed, the company says the units will produce enough electricity to power 500,000 homes. And at a time when scientists are warning that humans need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the units will produce massive amounts of electricity without contributing heat-trapping gases.

Last week, Georgia Power revealed that “vibrations” were discovered within the cooling system of Unit 3, one of the two new nuclear reactors under construction near Augusta. The vibrations surfaced during start-up testing and before the reactor achieved criticality. The company says the issue was not a safety concern.

Last Friday, federal regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Georgia Power an amendment to its operating license, allowing the company to fix the issue and echoing the company’s assessment that the problem was not a danger to the public

The apparent construction oversight concerns piping supports in two of the four “paths” within the “automatic depressurization system,” which provides a critical layer of protection against potential accidents, Steven D. Roetger, the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) staff’s lead analyst on Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, testified Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, if safe shutdown cannot be achieved, these things will blow and flood containment,” Roetger said. Containment is the heavily fortified metal and concrete structure built around the nuclear reactor.

William R. Jacobs, Jr., who has conducted oversight of the Vogtle project for the PSC since 2009, said it is common for issues to surface at nuclear plants during start-up testing. However, the fact that critical braces for piping were apparently not installed to begin with is surprising.

“That’s not abnormal, but it is abnormal to determine that critical piping components per the design were not installed,” Jacobs said. “That’s rather unusual.”

Georgia Power spokesman said the work to remediate the piping issue is underway and on schedule, but did not say when it would be completed.

Last fall, Georgia Power loaded nuclear fuel rods into Unit 3 and estimated that the reactor would be providing electricity for Georgians by the end of March. As a result of this latest snag, Georgia Power now projects the unit won’t be online until April, but said it’s possible the in-service date could be pushed back again.

Each month of delay that results could increase the cost of the project by $15 million, Georgia Power said. That could also drive up the rates customers pay for their electricity in the future.

Roetger and Jacobs also hinted at the possibility that more delays could surface as the company increases power in the reactor, in preparation for placing the unit in commercial operation and sending electricity out to Georgia homes.

“During start-up testing, the secondary plant will be operated at normal temperatures and pressures for the first time,” Roetger said. “Staff anticipates there could be numerous issues discovered during this testing that may result in additional delays.”

The complication is the latest headache for a project that has been plagued by delays and enormous cost overruns. Both units are more than six years behind schedule and their total price tag has climbed above $30 billion, more than double what was initially forecast. Georgia Power has said that Unit 4, Unit 3′s twin, is expected to be online during the fourth quarter of this year.

A second panel of PSC staff witnesses Tuesday provided a fresh look at how much Georgia Power rate payers will pay for Vogtle’s electricity.

According to their testimony, the average Georgia Power customer will have paid roughly $913 in their monthly bills to cover Vogtle’s construction costs by the end of the fourth quarter of this year. Staff’s analysis shows residential customers will pay approximately $17.20 per month for electricity in the first five years after Vogtle’s units are online and $16.10 per month more over the next five years.

That cost burden, they say, outweighs the benefits.

”The cost increases have significantly reduced the economic benefit of the Units on a cost to complete basis and have completely eliminated any benefit on a life-cycle cost basis,” the witness testimony concluded.

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