Newbuild: Vogtle-3 Races to the Finish Amid Its Own Pandemic

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Georgia Power is in a race against time and the Covid-19 pandemic to complete and start up Unit 3 of its twin-unit AP1000 Vogtle plant by November 2021, with Unit 4's start-up slated for 12 months later. Since the first confirmed case of Covid-19 at the site on Apr. 4 the number has climbed at an alarming rate, with 192 confirmed cases as of Thursday, May 7, according to a utility spokesperson. Meanwhile, the first of several "major milestones" -- open vessel testing -- was only just achieved, according to a May 1 announcement, making it two months behind schedule. The project is also facing a 20% workforce reduction as the developer tries, so far unsuccessfully, to slow the advance of the virus (NIW May1'20). The effort to complete what would be the only new nuclear power plant in the US in decades, with a total price tag of roughly $28 billion, "remains the most important infrastructure project currently under way in Georgia," according to the utility. But it is also proving potentially, if not in actual fact, deadly. Of some 9,000 workers onsite, at least 2,000 have been laid off or left voluntarily, posing a nightmare for local health officials who are furiously trying to keep up contact-tracing with each new case while victims self-quarantine, often in trailers or other temporary housing, or head to hospital emergency rooms in an attempt to recover. Georgia's governor reopened large parts of the state's economy, starting Apr. 24, ahead of other states, prompting strong criticism from mayors across the state and health officials who said it was too soon. Asked whether there had been any hospitalizations or fatalities among Vogtle workers, Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft declined to provide specifics "out of respect" for worker privacy "and to make sure we comply with privacy laws and regulations." Health care workers in the Richmond County seat of Augusta, which is about 30 miles from the plant and has three major hospitals, have been treating "lots of patients" with Covid-19, including from Vogtle, an official at University Hospital told Energy Intelligence. Burke County, which hosts the plant but has only a small rural medical facility, has 89 reported cases with three fatalities while Richmond County has 430 cases and 15 deaths, according to official statistics. Many permanent Vogtle plant employees live in Augusta or nearby, but hundreds, if not thousands, of temporary construction workers onsite hail from different counties in Georgia or from different states, and their cases aren't included in the local counts. Georgia Power has expanded Vogtle's on-site medical facility and "added the ability to administer flu and other virus tests including Covid-19 using trained medical professionals and approved test kits. Covid-19 tests are conducted by medical professionals at the on-site medical facility, and then sent offsite to a third party lab for processing," according to Kraft. But while testing at the site continues, plant workers are also seeking tests offsite, according to a hotline worker for the Richmond County Department of Health. She told Energy Intelligence that she has received multiple calls from Vogtle workers looking to schedule tests. Meanwhile, workers at Vogtle have complained to local media of dirty conditions and lack of soap in bathrooms as well as problems with social distancing (NIW Mar.27'20). Of the 192 positive test results at Vogtle so far, 62 are still "active" while 130 individuals who tested positive "have recovered and are available to return to work," Kraft wrote in an email. He said that 531 workers had tested negative and 25 are still awaiting results. This suggests there have been no fatalities linked to Covid-19 at the site, but that could not be independently confirmed. Moving Forward Meanwhile, the utility is pushing ahead with its "aggressive site work plan" that aims for a Unit-3 start-up in May of next year, although the approved fallback date of November 2021, with Vogtle-4 to follow a year later, is still in place. However, Georgia Public Service Commission staff have warned that the November dates will be difficult to achieve (NIW Jan.3'20). A first-quarter filing by Georgia Power parent Southern Co. cautioned of a backlog of "mechanical, electrical, and subcontract activities" and said that to meet the 2020 targets for both units in the aggressive work plan "construction productivity, including subcontractors, must improve and be sustained above historical average levels" (see table). It's hard to see that happening given that the reduced workforce levels "are expected to last at least through the summer" as the utility continues to monitor the impacts of Covid-19. Another big challenge is ticking off the boxes of the massive list of items involved in the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) Inspections, Tests, Analyses, and Acceptance Criteria (Itaac) process that must be completed and approved ahead of Unit 3's fuel loading, slated for Nov. 23. This is the first time the process has been used since the NRC went to a one-step Construction and Operating License basis, and so far some 68% of the required documentation and testing has yet to be completed, according to the Itaac status report for Vogtle-3. This plus testimony from a former Vogtle Itaac project manager formed the basis of a petition for a public hearing lodged by Nuclear Watch South against the unit's start-up. The Atlanta-based organization said that Southern Nuclear's "intent to operate" notification for Unit 3, filed earlier this year, "is grossly incomplete and should not have been filed for review." The group contends that "there is insufficient detail for the NRC to complete a proper safety review." An NRC spokesperson told Energy Intelligence that the agency has six Itaac specialists currently living near the plant and working mostly remotely on the check-list. They visit the site as necessary to perform inspections. It's unclear how many Southern Nuclear employees are currently dedicated to the process, but Kraft said the company "continues to work closely with the NRC on the ITAAC process, and plans to close all ITAAC by late 2020" and is "in full compliance with all NRC requirements related to ITAAC submissions" for the project. Should Vogtle-3 fail to meet the approved start-up date of November 2021, it would result in "additional base capital costs of approximately $50 million per month," based on Georgia Power's ownership interests, now at 45.7%, and financing costs of roughly $10 million per month, Southern said in its filing. But with "bolt construction" on Unit 3 past the critical point, the biggest scheduling impact of the Covid-19 crisis could be on Unit 4. "The things to watch are the productivity impacts on the Unit 4 schedule," advised one industry expert. "Frankly I think Southern would be happy to get Unit 3 on line, even if they sacrifice the Unit 4 schedule." Stephanie Cooke, Washington Vogtle-3 Major Milestones* Major Milestones Apr '19

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