By Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter
Executives from Southern Co.’s nuclear unit and Georgia Power ran through reasons why the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project is better off with them at the helm and with bankrupt Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC in a more limited role.
Vogtle’s cost and schedule have been scrutinized before the PSC in routine hearings twice a year, but yesterday, officials revealed more detail about the ongoing struggles with Westinghouse.
The day of finger-pointing and sometimes tense exchanges ended with this sobering question from a consumer advocate: “What was it like working on a project when you can’t control the contractor?”
Mark Rauckhorst, the Southern Nuclear executive in charge of Vogtle, answered by saying he’s worked on other projects. Some have gone well. Some have not.
“In this case, it has not gone well,” said Rauckhorst, executive vice president for Vogtle’s Units 3 and 4.
Vogtle was years behind schedule and billions of dollars above its forecast budget when Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy. Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear have stepped in and have full control of the project; Bechtel Corp. is the main contractor in charge of construction.
Westinghouse remains on-site because Vogtle is being built with the company’s AP1000 reactor technology. Officials praised the contractor’s work as far as design and procurement.
But that was about it for singing praises.
“My frustration was that we continued to point out where they had gaps and where they needed to close gaps, and they weren’t taking the action,” Rauckhorst said.
Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the end of March. Doing so opened the door for a new working arrangement. It also gave the utilities the ability to have full access to Westinghouse’s data and information that led to putting together something critical: Vogtle’s schedule.
Not having a fully detailed schedule that laid out each of Vogtle’s steps and the man-hours it would take to finish them has been a source of tension between Georgia Power and Westinghouse as well as the utility and the PSC staff’s analysts and consultants.
Rauckhorst said there was indeed a schedule, one with 200,000 individual jobs. But it wasn’t anywhere close to being accurate, he said.
“It was the underlying assumptions and estimates were flawed. The quantities were wrong. The unit rates were overly optimistic,” he said. “And thus hours, costs and schedule were no longer considered to be valid.”
Utility officials had no confidence in the underlying information that Westinghouse was providing, he said. The true hours to complete the project were significantly different from what Westinghouse told the utility prior to filing for bankruptcy, he said.
A Westinghouse spokeswoman said she had no comment on yesterday’s statements.
Commissioners pressed Rauckhorst and others throughout the day on how confident they were that they could stick to Vogtle’s cost and schedule. This is because the risk has shifted significantly from the contractors to Georgia Power, and ultimately, its customers.
What’s more, the PSC and other stakeholders have heard all of this before and want to know why, this time, something is different.
“Is the newfound confidence that you’re in charge?” PSC Vice Chairman Tim Echols asked.
The level of inquiry hasn’t been as intense in Georgia, in part because of the twice-annual review. But many still want to know what Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear knew about Westinghouse’s financial troubles and when they knew it.
To work that closely with a contractor, it makes little sense to act blindsided by severe financial turmoil, suggested Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer group.
Utility executives saw a continued degradation in Westinghouse’s performance last year and into 2017, Rauckhorst said. They knew things were getting worse, but it wasn’t clear whether Westinghouse’s parent, Toshiba Corp., would continue to financially support the contractor.
Rauckhorst continued to press that Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power had raised issues about Westinghouse’s performance at weekly and monthly meetings.
“What took you so long to take over?” Coyle asked. “It took the bankruptcy of Westinghouse for you to do the right thing?”
The PSC staff, Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear have pointed out that productivity has improved at Vogtle since the change. The utilities aren’t doing anything differently from what they had recommended to Westinghouse all along, Rauckhorst said.
“We’ve taken those actions,” Rauckhorst said. “You can see that change in performance.”
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