Vogtle delays loom again, but when will Ga. Power know?

By Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter

ATLANTA — Consumer advocates pressed for details yesterday about the possibility of more delays at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project after independent analysts again said it likely won’t be fully operating by 2020.

Georgia Power executives have repeatedly said it has assurances from the contractor, Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, that the project will meet that date. Both companies face financial consequences otherwise.

Vogtle units 3 and 4 are the first U.S. reactors to be built from scratch in decades. The project is 39 months behind schedule and roughly $2 billion above its original forecast.

Project analysts — an independent construction monitor and a Georgia Public Service Commission staffer — have said they are “less optimistic” and “view the schedule as more challenging” than they did six months ago.

“We think there’s a strong likelihood that those dates will not be met,” William Jacobs, the project’s independent monitor, said during routine hearings about Vogtle’s cost and schedule. He reiterated that statement throughout the day.

Liz Coyle, executive director for consumer group Georgia Watch, asked when it would become more clear that contractors would need more time to finish the reactors. For example, Unit 3 is scheduled for what’s known as “hot function” testing in 18 months, which means all of the major buildings must be finished by then.

“Do you have a sense in your mind, if they haven’t gotten to ‘this’ point by ‘this’ time, that there’s no way?” she asked.

Jacobs acknowledged that if workers aren’t ready to begin critical testing by that point, then Vogtle’s Unit 3 will take longer to complete. He and others remain optimistic that contractors can take lessons learned from Unit 3 and apply them to Unit 4, however, condensing some of the time at the second reactor.

“Their position as the contractor is working to those dates,” Jacobs said. “At some point, the contractor will say, ‘We can’t meet these dates.’ Until that time, there’s no point in the company’s saying, ‘We can’t meet these dates.'”

The company and contractors are working on a wide range of ways to keep the project on track. For example, time-motion studies revealed that some workers may have to walk a long way to clock in, get tools and take breaks, all cutting into actual time on the job. Other reviews showed supervisors wind up spending more time in their office working on paperwork instead of on the actual construction site.

The contractor has made changes to work on those issues and others, said Steven Roetger, the PSC’s lead analyst for Vogtle.

There has been a long tug of war between Georgia Power and project analysts over Vogtle’s schedule. But despite frequent signals that the project faces significant delays, Roetger said there were times — particularly when Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. replaced the Shaw Group as a main contractor — that analysts were more optimistic that Vogtle would remain on track. Neither company is working on Vogtle now, however.

“This project has gone through many changes over the years,” he said.

State utility regulators are weighing a settlement on how to handle Vogtle’s current and future costs. The company and PSC analysts defended their agreement in a daylong hearing earlier this week.

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