Overall construction shot of Plant Vogtle's Unit 4 taken earlier in June. Credit: Georgia Power

Managers of the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project are having an especially bad month, which is saying something for a long-delayed project billions of dollars over budget.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Co. endured a blistering hearing at the Georgia Public Service Commission Thursday, just days after U.S. nuclear regulators launched a review of electrical cable systems at the plant near Augusta.

The five-member, elected PSC board assembled virtually to consider the energy company’s latest $670 million spending request, but that discussion took a backseat to complaints by state regulators and independent monitors that mismanagement of the project is creating more setbacks for the nuclear project started more than a decade ago. 

Georgia Power officials tangled with PSC staff often over the years of delays, but this week the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission tacked on an investigation into Southern’s response to problems with the electrical cable system used as a safety mechanism at Vogtle.

The federal commission said it plans to finish its review in a couple of weeks, but it could take longer if inspectors uncover more problems, said Steve Roetger, the PSC’s lead Vogtle staff analyst.

He said a critical piece in getting the final two units running is proving to federal regulators the reactors can operate safely. The first two units were completed in the late 1980s.

“I think it’s imperative that (Southern) gather their resources and get this problem resolved,” Roetger said. “The quality issues, the breakdown within the quality assurance program because it’s only going to lead to more problems down the road with either rework and worst-case scenarios with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Thursday’s PSC hearing followed recent filings from independent monitors and service commission staff that estimated Units 3 and 4 will be delayed at least another seven months beyond the operator’s projections they’ll start operating in November 2021 and November 2022. 

The setback could inflate the costs by another $2 billion, raising the latest final price tag to $28 billion for a nuclear expansion initially projected to start delivering electricity in 2017 at a cost of $14 billion.

So far, utility customers have been paying Vogtle’s financing costs, leaving state regulators to determine how much of the construction costs to add to ratepayers’ utility bills and how much shareholders should absorb.

And according to the PSC staff analysis, the latest overruns mean the average residential customer will pay about $854 of the financing, twice as much as the original projection.

Georgia Power continues to say it will meet its revised deadline to complete Unit 3 in January while completing the final reactor in November 2022.

The company is the state’s largest supplier of electricity, providing power to about 2.5 million Georgians.

Vogtle’s supporters say the project is a pivotal investment in the state’s energy future, offering a cleaner form of electricity for many for decades to come. But consumer advocacy groups and environmentalists have long criticized the ballooning cost and argued that ratepayers should not have to shoulder the burden of cost overruns.

Analysts repeatedly criticized Southern Co. and Georgia Power officials for promising to meet an overly aggressive schedule for a project they say has been riddled with poor oversight for years.

Among the latest deadlines projected to be missed is a failure to complete hot functional testing of the Unit 3 reactor until several weeks after the date promised. 

The company’s original schedule called for finishing the testing and reaching the milestone of loading fuel at the reactor within three-and-half months.

It’s a process that typically takes six months, said independent monitor Donald Grace.

“Certainly, you can have an aggressive schedule within the six months, but don’t try to sell people on the fact that you’re going to do it in significantly less than six months,” he said.

Georgia Power Attorney Steven Hewitson said that analysts and regulators must factor disruptions caused by COVID-19 since spring of 2020 into Vogtle’s delays. 

“And while we’d all prefer that mistakes not be made and the goal is to minimize the amount of rework necessary on a project,” he said.

“No one would expect that on a construction project of this magnitude, that there would be 100% construction completion without some mistakes,” he said. 

On Thursday, Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued that power company customers shouldn’t get stuck with the latest round of ballooning Vogtle costs.

“So (Southern Nuclear) is making adjustments and improving oversight, but it’s come at a cost,” said Ebersbach, who represented the Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. “Is it fair for ratepayers to bear that cost that the SNC is ultimately responsible for?”

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