By Drew Kann, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution —
Unit 3 was expected to be operational by the end of the first quarter, but cooling system problem creates new delay
Georgia Power said Wednesday that “vibrations” were discovered within the cooling system of one of the two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle during start-up testing, an issue that is likely to further delay the unit’s in-service date.
The issue is not a safety issue, the company said. Still, it is another snag for a project that has been plagued by repeated 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.
Last fall, Georgia Power announced that it had loaded nuclear fuel rods into Unit 3 and had most recently projected that the reactor would be providing electricity for Georgians by the end of March.
In Wednesday’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealing the issue, Georgia Power said it now projects the unit won’t be online until April, but said it’s possible the in-service date could be pushed back again.
The company said it is working to remediate the vibration problem by strengthening support for piping in the “automatic depressurization system,” a safety mechanism used to relieve pressure and maintain cooling supply to the reactor core.
Each month of delay that results will likely 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.
In a statement, Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said this kind of testing is critical to ensure the unit functions safely.
“We are focused on getting this project done right, with safety and quality first, as we work to bring these new nuclear units on-line that will serve as a clean, zero-emissions energy source for millions of Georgians,” Hawkins said.
Arthur T. Motta, a professor of nuclear engineering and materials science at Pennsylvania State University, said it was not surprising or concerning that start-up testing revealed the need for adjustments in the cooling system.
“This is a very large power production reactor and you would expect that there would be some issues like that when you put it all together,” Motta said.
Motta added that the lack of recent experience with building reactors in the U.S. could also partly explain the issue.
Vogtle Unit 3 and its twin, Unit 4, are the first two new commercial nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. in over 30 years. The new Vogtle units also use an advanced reactor technology developed by Westinghouse called the AP1000. While several of these models have been built in China, the Vogtle reactors are the first built on the platform in the U.S.
“The fact that we have not built reactors, you kind of lose your muscle a little bit,” he said. “The people who know how to do it retire and all that.”
In its filing, Georgia Power acknowledged the possibility of more delays before the unit is complete.
“New challenges also may arise which may result in required engineering changes or remediation related to plant systems, structures, or components,” the company said in Wednesday’s filing.
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.
Georgia Power’s customers are already paying for the units in their monthly power bills. Staff for state regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) have estimated that by the time the reactors are completed, the company’s average residential customer will have already paid $900 to cover Vogtle construction costs.
Another rate increase is set to hit Georgia Power customers’ monthly bills once Unit 3 goes into operation. The PSC will decide who ends up with the tab for the remaining costs, but local consumer advocacy groups have argued that the company should not be allowed to pass the cost overruns on to its customers.
“Ratepayers are already overpaying on this risky, first-of-its-kind technology,” said Liz Coyle, the executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer watchdog group. “Higher costs from these and future delays should be on Georgia Power’s shareholders, not their customers.”
Georgia Power has said it expects Unit 4 to be operational by the fourth quarter of this year, but it was unclear if the setback at Unit 3 would shift the company’s timeline.
The company said it would provide another update on Unit 3′s progress during its next earnings call in February. Georgia Power is also set to deliver an update on Vogtle to regulators at the PSC at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17.
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