More Delays, Overruns at Giant Georgia Nuclear Plant are Not Unique

February 19, 2022

Above, from 2011, CNN Business interview with Southern Company Chairman Tom Fanning, at the beginning stage of construction for units 3 and 4 of the Vogtle Nuclear plant.
Interestingly, he makes commitment not only to Nuclear, but to new technologies to “keep coal alive” (:45)
He explains why this new nuclear project is not like the old nuclear projects.
Points out that Southern has a lot of nuclear experience – “This is not a business for beginners.”
Commits to “all of the above” strategy.
Begs the question “Are we learning anything here?”
The support for nuclear remains strong enough that if there are going to be Federal energy and climate initiatives, you just about have to have a nuclear piece to get the support you need from people like, well, Joe Manchin.

For that reason, I want to remain hopeful that somebody out there knows how to do this, but experience remains sobering.

E&E News:

Southern Co. yesterday announced another delay for its long-troubled nuclear construction project in Georgia, edging its costs closer to the $30 billion mark.

The setback could now push the startup date for Plant Vogtle’s first reactor until early 2023 and move the date for the second one to later that year. The costs for Plant Vogtle’s two reactors have now risen to the point that Southern should absorb every dollar instead of sharing that burden with the other developers — and passing it on to customers.

Plant Vogtle’s latest move highlights the nuclear industry’s chief troubles with building large, baseload reactors: safety and cost. To be clear, Southern executives have blamed this new hiccup on paperwork, saying that workers were gathering it to send to federal safety regulators and noticed critical inspection records were missing or incomplete.

The pile of missing or incomplete documents added up to a delay of three to six months, Southern said. That additional time is costing $920 million.

“We’re a little frustrated with the latest developments,” Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning said yesterday in an interview. “[The first unit] is on the doorstep of loading fuel and going into service.”

Fanning talked of “great momentum” at the construction site since November. He said the company was looking forward to receiving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s permission to load fuel rods into the reactor, the last major step before it can start producing electricity.

But workers realized “tens of thousands” of critical documents were missing, leading to a three-month backlog, Fanning said. Officials have cut that time down by 30 percent, he added.

“We’re fixing that part of the ‘paper’ process,” he told E&E News.

Vogtle started for one reason and is being finished for another. The reactors were supposed to be the answer for baseload electricity as coal was falling out of favor, natural gas prices were high and renewables were in their nascent stages.

Now, the gigantic reactors could offer 2,200 megawatts of emission-free baseload electricity as Southern and the nation shift away from fossil fuels.

“When we build this thing, get it in service … we’re going to be proud of it for decades to come,” Fanning said during a conference call with Wall Street analysts during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings presentation yesterday. “We look forward to getting the project behind us and getting into 2024.”

Aerial views – Vogtle Nuclear plant – from Georgia Power

Major construction on Vogtle began in 2012with a $14 billion price tag and expected startup dates of 2016 and 2017. A series of contractor delays, a litany of rework, problems with finishing individual tasks on time and the bankruptcy of reactor designer Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC have doubled the project’s costs.

Given the project’s troubles combined with how close the first unit was to producing electricity, analysts on yesterday’s call expressed frustration.

“I know you knew all along that the paperwork and the [paperwork] trail of that was super-important,” said Steve Fleishman, an analyst with Wolfe Research LLC. “Can you give us a little flavor to what has gone on here; obviously it was something you were very focused on from the beginning.”

Fanning agreed, again saying he and others were frustrated.

“I get up every morning, go throughout the day and in the middle of the night, thinking about Vogtle and what we can do,” he said.

Vogtle is the lone nuclear construction project in the U.S. and involves the first set of reactors to be built from scratch in decades. While the reactor design was supposed to be a template for dozens of others, it isn’t — and Southern is having to wade through a whole new construction and regulatory process on its own.

“This is the first nuclear documentation that [the industry] has had to do in 40 years,” Fanning said. “I wish we had found it sooner, but we didn’t.”

Developers learned of Vogtle’s new cost and schedule on Sunday. The schedule increase now requires the electric companies to officially vote whether the project should keep going, based on a 2018 agreement.

Southern subsidiary Georgia Power Co. has already agreed to move forward, Fanning said yesterday. The other owners — Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities — are going through their separate governance processes. They must decide by March 8.

“Oglethorpe Power and its members are deeply invested in the success of the nuclear units that will provide 60-80 years of emission-free energy, and we do not expect the project to be stopped,” the electric utility said in a statement. “However, before we cast our vote, we will take the time to fully digest and analyze a budget increase of this significance. Anything less would be a disservice to our member-consumers.”

There is a separate dispute over money, however. At issue is that 2018 ownership agreement, which states that Southern and Georgia Power will take on more risk should Vogtle’s construction costs rise above certain thresholds.

Now, Southern and the owners do not agree on two things: whether they’ve reached that monetary benchmark that would let the other developers tender a portion of their ownership share in megawatts in exchange for not paying anymore for Vogtle, and how much Covid-19-related costs played a role.

“The co-owner agreement is very clear that force majeure related costs (including COVID) have no impact on [this] provision,” Oglethorpe Power said in a statement.

When these stories come up, a common response begins with “Well, in France..” – because we’re supposed to believe that the French know how to do nuclear right, and none of these problems would be happening if only we had some French folks in charge. Well..

Bloomberg:

The long decline of Electricite de France SA isn’t only a political crisis for the government in Paris, it’s a growing economic threat for much of Europe.

The giant nuclear operator, once a source of national pride and reliable low-cost electricity, has become a nightmare for investors and an increasingly wobbly pillar of regional energy security. Technical problems at some of its largest reactors mean EDF is set to produce the smallest amount of atomic power in three decades, slashing France’s exports to neighboring countries. 

It’s a one-two punch for a region that’s already reeling from record natural gas prices, and shows little sign of abating. Instead of helping EDF deal with its problems, the French government is extracting billions of dollars from the company to shield households from high energy costs. 

“The generic issue with EDF’s reactors is leading to an unprecedented decline in production, which starts being worrying,” said Nicolas Goldberg, a senior manager in charge of energy at Colombus Consulting in Paris. “We’re going to have high prices on the European market for a while. Everybody’s going to pay more.”

France is located at the heart of Western Europe’s power grid. For decades, its fleet of nuclear reactors have been the continent’s largest electricity exporter, supplying the U.K., Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany at times of peak demand. 

Now more than ever — with the price of coal, natural gas and carbon permits soaring — those countries could use some fossil-free electricity. Yet five out of EDF’s 56 reactors have been unexpectedly halted for checks and repairs related to corrosion and cracks on pipes in a key safety system. Traders are waiting anxiously to see whether safety reviews find similar flaws in more of the company’s plants. 

Instructive to look at comparative European power prices in recent months, while the continent has been in a bit of an energy crunch – France has had quite a bit higher spikes than green/anti-nuke Germany, and remains quite a bit more expensive recently for caseload power.

Newest French reactor having some of the same pains as Vogtle:

Popular Mechanics:

France’s new energy minister has called a major French nuclear project “a mess” in public interviews. The European pressurized reactor (EPR) that was commissioned for the Flamanville nuclear power plant, where it joins two existing pressurized water reactors, has been delayed and plagued by problems. The latest extension takes the project timeline from 13 years to 17 at least.

The goal with the EPR design was to continue to kit out the world’s highest-output nuclear plants, with individual reactors that were more powerful and safer. The EPR uses less uranium because its chemical design is more efficient. And it’s not any kind of major technological leap; instead, it’s an iteration on a previous design that’s just a little bit better.

The engineers are so eager to keep iterating that they already have an EPR 2 design in the works. This sounds pretty straightforward … right?

The EPR dates back to the 2000s, when the first two reactors were commissioned for France and Finland. Despite breaking ground in 2007 and 2005, respectively, neither reactor has kept to its timeline. Now, Finland will be the first in 2021, if it hits its repeatedly rescheduled opening day. France is even further back at 2023. The outgoing French administration signed the latest extension in March.

That puts Flamanville 10 years past its original due date. One of the more alarming causes for delay is a break in the “main secondary system penetration welds,” which has contributed to a budget that’s bloated from a planned $3.9 billion to $14.6 billion. 

In July, “France’s Court of Auditors slammed the Flamanville build, saying EDF had vastly underestimated its cost and timetable for completion,” Montel reports:

“The EPR reactor was originally expected to start commercial operation in 2013 and cost EUR3.3 billion. However, the project has been beset by delays and cost increases. Last October, EDF said necessary repairs to the reactor’s main secondary system penetration welds will further increase the cost of constructing the Flamanville EPR to EUR12.4 billion. The loading of fuel into the reactor has also been further delayed until the end of 2022.”

There’s nothing especially wrong with the EPR design or idea. The reactor’s name was genericized to “evolutionary power reactor” for use outside Europe, and the first two EPRs are up and running in China now. Sponsoring organization Électricité de France (EDF) is a partly state-owned electric utility whose interests include many kinds of electric power plants, but whose nuclear reactors are their bread and butter. The failure of their EPR reactor in home territory in France hasn’t stopped EDF from trumpeting its success in China.

Barbara Pompili was just appointed France’s minister of ecological transition, which is the department that includes energy as well as environmental issues like biodiversity. Pompili is publicly and avowedly anti-nuclear, even for civilian energy. With a new spotlight on her office, she told a French radio station, “We have made a commitment to reduce the share of nuclear power to 50 [percent] by 2035.” 

Pompili said the critiques of Flamanville’s overdue EPR reflect broad industry consensus from different reports, not her own anti-nuclear views.

In the case of Flamanville, it would seem stranger if Pompili didn’t speak out. The huge, leaky, extensively delayed project has become the nuclear elephant in the room.

3 Responses to “More Delays, Overruns at Giant Georgia Nuclear Plant are Not Unique”

  1. Keith McClary Says:

    Cost of Trans Mountain pipeline expansion soars 70% to $21.4 billion
    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/trans-mountain-pipeline-expansion-calgary-1.6357174

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Unlike the popular US perception of Canada in terms of “Canada nice” and snow and poutine and pompom toques, Canada is and always has been a country based on extraction of natural resources, from pelts, timber, oil (fourth in the world), industrial minerals and coal, and the governments, both provincial and federal, answer to it.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Interestingly, he makes commitment not only to Nuclear, but to new technologies to “keep coal alive” (:45)

    IMHO the 2011 investment in adding to existing plants to have been a plausible bet, considering the uncertainty about solar/wind/storage solutions and costs of the time (we know better now). However, I find the declaration to “keep coal alive” unforgivable in 2011. If he had phrased it in terms of “unfortunately, we can’t shut down the coal plants yet” it would have been almost acceptable.


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