Less than a year out from the first in-service deadline for its new nuclear units, Georgia Power needs the Bechtel-led project team to do something that’s never been done at the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion—meet an ambitious construction schedule.
Timely completion of work needed to meet the November 2021 Commercial Operational Date (COD) for Vogtle’s Unit 3 would represent a significant, near-miraculous turnaround of the long-troubled project. But it’s not something that project monitors believe will happen, according to testimony recently submitted to the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Indeed, more than seven-and-a-half years into construction of the two new nuclear units, and 11 years since the project’s inception, the latest revised schedule could turn out to be just as unrealistic as its predecessors.
“Since inception of the project in 2009, all [Integrated Project Schedule] iterations have been overly aggressive and unachievable,” according to testimony submitted Nov. 24 by Steven Roetger and William Jacobs, project monitors working for the Georgia PSC.
“The history of the project has shown that the CODs projected by SNC (Southern Nuclear Company) have ultimately been required to be delayed,” the monitors continued, concluding that “there still exists a high likelihood of the COD not being achievable.”
COVID-19 has slowed progress. According to project owner Georgia Power, as of Oct. 20, more than 1,000 workers had tested positive. In turn, those positive cases required isolating about 6,600 workers for a minimum of 14 days. Overall, the company estimates COVID-related cost impacts of between $150 million and $250 million.
Despite the hurdles, Georgia Power remains publicly committed to its schedule, as noted in October testimony jointly submitted by Georgia Power’s David McKinney, senior vice president, and Jeremiah Haswell, director of project oversight.
McKinney and Haswell testified that “while the pandemic continues to impact the project, based on current information and projections, we believe that the project will be able to bring Unit 3 and Unit 4 online by the regulatory-approved in-service dates of November 2021 and November 2022.”
Further schedule slippage could increase the Unit 3 and 4 expansion’s total project cost. SNC currently estimates it as $17.1 billion, and slippage could add roughly $2 billion, adds Don Grace, vice president at the Vogtle Monitoring Group.
A Different Approach
Both PSC staff monitors and Grace fault the utility’s focus on major milestones rather than percentage of completion, number of finished pre-operational tests and completed work packages.
Focusing on completed systems tests or the setting of the Unit 3 containment shield fail to provide a true measure of progress, they say.
“We do not believe that the accomplishment of major milestones in isolation is an appropriate way to gauge the overall progress of the project. Metrics including construction percent complete,” argue staff monitors Roetger and Jacobs, and the “… number of preoperational tests completed and number of systems turned over to operations provide a more comprehensive and better indication of the overall status of the project.”
One of those metrics, the closure of work packages, continues to challenge contractors.
The PSC staff monitors noted that as of mid-October, SNC reported there were 9,741 open work packages for Vogtle Unit 3. Citing an internal Georgia Power report, Roetger and Jacobs further noted that to meet the schedule, SNC would need to more than double the current weekly closure rate of about 200 to more than 450 per week in order to close all remaining 1,900-plus work packages related to the Hot Functional Testing (HFT) milestone.
Testing should await completion of concrete and steel work, said Grace.
In testimony submitted to the PSC on Nov. 24, Grace criticized SNC’s approach to construction for the continuing delays, asserting that “a primary root cause of poor productivity and production is due to SNC’s strategy of accelerating testing prior to completion of civil work and a greater degree of the bulk construction commodities which then leads to inefficient and costly execution of construction.”
“To the contrary,” Grace continued, “SNC erroneously concluded that deviation from normal industry practice would both (a) shorten the schedule while at the same time (b) allow for completion of the project within the estimated TPC (total project cost).
Grace further asserted that SNC sometimes uses alternative measures to achieve a major milestone.
Wire pulls were a concern. “VMG believes that the extensive use of ‘partial releases for test’ … in many cases to support a nearer-term schedule milestone, can lead to pulling and terminating single cables versus doing bulk pulls of all cables,” resulting in multiple cable runs along a single route, requiring more worker hours.
Additionally, Grace said his analysis of related project work-hour data led him to believe this approach has likely caused damage to cables, requiring re-work related to replacing cables and re-opening sealed wall penetrations.
Peril for Ratepayers
For their part, Georgia Power and executives of SNC—a division of the utility—maintain in testimony to the PSC that the approach they are taking to construction offers the best chance to meet the looming certified operational date deadlines.
“Project leadership acknowledges that our expected case for Unit 3 is challenging and Unit 4’s site work plan is aggressive,” stated SNC CEO Stephen Kuczynski, and Aaron Abramovitz, vice president of Plant Vogtle.
But the leaders “continue to believe that working toward a challenging schedule is necessary to maintain the focus and drive of the project, identify and mitigate risks early, and ultimately support the project’s objective of meeting the regulatory-approved in-service dates for Units 3 and 4.”
Either way, the current commercial operational dates are roughly five years later than the original targets of 2016 and 2017, respectively. And the resulting increase in total costs will definitely be felt by Georgia Power’s ratepayers.
Testimony submitted by a team of financial analysts, led by the PSC Director of Utility Finance Tom Newsome, put it in perspective.
The team noted that once the new units become operational, Georgia Power will likely request to add roughly $8.1 billion to its rate base—or about 83% more than the $4.4 billion assumed at the time of certification.
As the Newsome team summarized, “In conclusion, ratepayers will pay substantially more both prior to and after the units begin providing service due to the delays and cost overruns.”
Notably, once units are online, a prudency review by the Georgia PSC could disallow certain costs, reducing the amount Georgia Power could charge its customers.