Faced with a growing number of workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project, Georgia Power plans to reduce its craft workforce by roughly 20%.

John Kraft, a Georgia Power spokesperson, said the company plans to make the reduction through a “self-selection” process, noting that many workers are already choosing to stay offsite due to COVID-19 concerns. In late March, Georgia Power stated that the project’s workforce numbered more than 9,000.

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“The mitigating action is expected to help increase workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism,” Kraft said. “It is also intended to help lessen the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce by allowing for increased social distancing and further facilitating the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

As of April 22, 92 workers had tested positive, with results still pending for another 77, according to Georgia Power. The company stated that 226 have tested negative.

The nuclear expansion has been dogged by productivity and schedule issues throughout its construction. In November, testimony from state construction monitors revealed that many system turnovers were behind schedule by 90 days or more. Calling the schedule assumptions “unrealistic and unachievable,” the monitors stated that the project needed “significant improvements in production, productivity and planning.”

Now, despite the large reduction in workforce—which could total more than 1,500 workers—Georgia Power states that if absenteeism rates normalize and the project team can increase productivity in the coming months, the project can still meet the scheduled in-service dates of November 2021 and November 2022 for Units 3 and 4, respectively.

Those dates are more than five years behind the project’s original schedule for Units 3 and 4, of April 2016 and April 2017, respectively.

As of January 1, Georgia Power estimated construction to be 77% complete.

The company estimates the incremental cost of its mitigation strategy to total between $15 million and $30 million, however it asserts that the cost will not affect the total project cost forecast. “The current measures taken to protect the health of the workers and communities have caused the project to accelerate the transition to a more streamlined workforce for the time being,” Kraft said in a press statement. The decision was made after consultation with the co-owners, building trades, construction manager Bechtel and others, he said.

For those workers who tested positive for COVID-19, Georgia Power says it took immediate action to identify and notify workers who were located in close proximity to those who tested positive. Team members awaiting test results were sent home to stay in self-isolation and monitor their symptoms, according to the company.

On April 1, Georgia Power Co. executives testified that Georgia Power and Southern Co. had established an onsite clinic, including additional medical personnel, tents, trailers and supplies. Non-manual field personnel who can complete tasks offsite were offered remote work permissions. Other safety policies include “aggressive field worker distancing strategies, adjusted break schedules, enhanced cleaning of gathering areas, and additional mobile facilities to support social distancing recommendations for workers who are not able perform their job responsibilities remotely.”

This week, Southern announced additional measures that it put in place to support distancing and hygiene initiatives, including alternate work schedules, the limiting of no more than two people in an elevator at one time, as well as requiring that tools and materials pickups be kept to one person per transaction. Additionally, all mass transit trams, shuttle buses and van pools have been suspended, and onsite passenger vehicles are limited to the driver only..

4/23/20 - This story was updated with the latest numbers related to COVID-19 tests of workers.