The company overseeing the expansion of Plant Vogtle has scaled back one-fifth of its workforce after an outbreak of COVID-19 spread to 185 workers and left significant numbers of employees afraid to show up for work.
The reduction – which took the on-site workforce down from 9,000 to about 7,000 – is likely to cost Georgia Power and other co-owners about $40 million. The pandemic forced the project owners to weigh other options, including whether to temporarily halt construction.
Representatives of Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear told state regulators during a hearing conducted over video conference that the global pandemic’s full impact on the massive project’s cost and timing remain to be seen – as does whether ratepayers will be on the hook for the additional cost.
“In the coming months, we expect the pandemic will continue to present challenges and risks to the project,” Stephen Kuczynski, president and CEO of Southern Nuclear, told state regulators Tuesday.
“The overall long-term impact of the pandemic on cost and schedule remains difficult to estimate,” Kuczynski said, adding the company could not “presume any one outcome or predict the ultimate cost and schedule impacts based on the pandemic at this time.”
Started in 2013, the expansion of Plant Vogtle is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Southern Nuclear, which is a subsidiary of the Southern Company – the parent company of Georgia Power – took over the project after the original contractor declared bankruptcy in 2017.
Project leaders presented an update Tuesday during a semi-annual hearing before the state Public Service Commission. COVID-19 dominated the virtual gathering, even though it falls outside the timeframe under scrutiny. Other delays, unrelated to the pandemic, were also reported.
Since the first confirmed case in early April, 185 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 at Plant Vogtle as of Monday. At the peak, more than 500 people were self-isolating because of their exposure to the virus.
Kuczynski said that even though the number of cases continue to rise, the rolling seven-day average indicates they may be seeing the beginnings of a downward trend of new positive cases. He also said he was encouraged by the fact that some workers are returning to work.
The thousands of workers at the site are attempting to practice social distancing. Masks have been provided and other steps – such as providing on-site testing – have been taken to try to reduce the risk of further spread.
But as it is, absenteeism has as much as tripled from past winters because of the outbreak. The reduction of staffing is expected to last into the summer.
Even so, company representatives assured state regulators that the two new nuclear reactors are still on track to go online by the state-approved dates of November 2021 and November 2022. The project was first approved in 2009.
“We do see a near-term impact on our productivity – yet to be determined the length of that,” Kuczynski said. “I anticipate we will work through and get to a level of productivity that supports our continued internal plan.”
Georgia Power owns the largest share of the project. Other major backers include Oglethorpe Power Company, which represents dozens of electric co-ops, and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia. Dalton Utilities also owns a small share of the project.
Beyond Vogtle, nearly 30,000 people in the Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening. Nearly 1,300 people had died.