State consultants say Plant Vogtle expansion timeline ‘challenged’

    Georgia Power officials told the state Public Service Commission Tuesday the Plant Vogtle on-site workforce is down from 9,000 to about 7,000 and COVID-19 worries are causing a rise in absenteeism. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Delays and costs are likely to keep growing for an expansion of Georgia Power’s nuclear plant south of Augusta, according to reports the Georgia Public Service Commission staff filed last Friday.

    Underway since 2013, the project to build two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle is billions over budget and already three years behind schedule. Georgia Power executives assure both reactors remain on track to launch by late 2022, but the consultants who prepared the commission’s reports in the Friday filing call that deadline “significantly challenged.”

    Georgia Power will be hard-pressed to meet deadlines for Vogtle Unit 3 to go online by November 2021 and Vogtle Unit 4 by November 2022, said Don Grace, an engineer the commission hired to monitor construction. Grace, other engineering consultants and PSC staff agreed in four individual reports that it’s impossible to say when the two reactors might actually be finished.

    If the troubled project falls further behind and costs continue to surge, Georgia Power’s 2.5 million customers across the state could wind up paying as much of the tab as state regulators allow. The company’s aggressive construction timeline creates uncertainty, engineering consultants say.

    “This question could be answered if the schedule was realistic,” said one of Friday’s reports, co-written by the commission’s lead analyst, Steven Roetger, and Marietta-based consultant William Jacobs Jr. “But without (a schedule) based on realistic and achievable unit rates, an estimate of project completion is simply an educated guess.”

    Georgia Power disagreed with that assessment Monday, citing progress in the form of water-flow tests that are underway for one of the reactor’s cooling systems. The company still expects the reactors to make their current in-service deadlines, said spokeswoman Holly Crawford.

    “As we’ve been saying, the site’s aggressive working plan is intended as a tool to build margin up to help us achieve the November regulatory-approval dates,” Crawford said in an email Monday.

    The PSC reports released Friday cast doubt on that. Georgia Power prioritized “completing the (plant) as soon as possible” instead of within a reasonable timeframe, prompting dampened productivity and climbing costs, Grace said

    Work now lags so far behind the original completion schedule that it would be foolish to rely on that timeline, and it’s unlikely construction crews can catch up to the target deadline even if Georgia Power contractors add more workers, Grace said.

    The plant’s expansion will likely cost more than the nearly $18 billion now projected, far in excess of the $7 billion spent so far, according to the filings.

    Even with the missed deadlines and cost overruns, it still makes the most economic sense for Georgia Power to press ahead with the project, commission staff said in a financial analysis. But if further construction delays drag out for 18 months more, it could be time to shelve the project, the analysis says.

    This week, Georgia Power is asking the PSC to sign off on a big hike in its customer’s base rate and for billing increases to pay for construction, maintenance and environmental cleanup costs. Critics of the nuclear plant’s expansion pounced on the new Vogtle reports at a news conference across from the state Capitol Monday just as Georgia Power executives defended their rate request at a hearing at the PSC’s offices a block away.

    “It was already over-budget and already behind schedule,” said Brionte McCorkle, executive director of the environmental group Georgia Conservation Voters. “The expectation that we wouldn’t see more delays and more increasing costs wasn’t a fair or reasonable expectation.”

    Commission Chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald” declined to comment on last week’s filings Monday, saying he had not yet reviewed them.

    Beau Evans
    Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.