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Decision on nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle moved up to next week

A decision on whether to complete two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle has been moved up from February to next week, the chairman of the Public Service Commission said Monday.

Commissioner Stan Wise said it will decide Dec. 21 after he received a request from Georgia Power Company to move the decision to this year in case the commission rules the projects should not proceed so that the company could take advantage of $150 million in benefits it might lose next year due to changes in tax law.

Commission staff also want Georgia Power to bear more of the risk for the project and oppose the company’s request to find “reasonable” its new schedule and costs of $12.2 billion to complete the reactors by 2021 and 2022, calling that “uneconomic” to ratepayers by $1.6 billion.

Tom Newsome, director of utility finance for the commission, said further delays beyond those projected by the company and its partners could cause the project to become an even worse deal, by as much as $4.9 billion, as any delays have “a significant adverse impact” on the costs. Should the project proceed, only $9 billion of the cost should be considered “reasonable” and borne by ratepayers and anything above that “should be absorbed by the company,” he said. The alternative recommendation would be to cancel the projects.

Under questioning from Georgia Power attorney Kevin Greene, Dr. William Jacobs, a consultant to the commission, admitted the cost and schedule might be “reasonable” but added “there is a large amount of uncertainty” on whether they can be achieved.

Other staff testified that the problems stemmed from the very beginning in that contractor Westinghouse, which is manufacturing the new AP1000 reactors being installed at Vogtle and was also the general contractor for the projects until it declared bankruptcy in March, didn’t have the design far enough along when the projects began in 2009. In fact China, which was about two years ahead of the Vogtle project in creating new reactors with the AP1000, has yet to get one online although one is just awaiting regulatory approval to load fuel, Jacobs said. Construction on two of those reactors in South Carolina was halted this summer after the utilities determined the projects would be too expensive to continue. Finishing the design and handling the construction of the new reactors “was a much bigger job than even Westinghouse realized,” Jacobs said. Manufacturers also complained about all of the design changes that were being passed down, he said. The company was “constantly adding things, taking things off,” said Steven Roetger, an analyst for the commission. “I can only imagine the frustration.”

For instance, staff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t like the way Westinghouse had arranged rebar for reinforcing concrete on part of the project. Westinghouse insisted it had made it the design better, leading to a long discussion and a 10-month delay, Jacobs said. But also in question was how much oversight Georgia Power, which owns a 45.7 percent stake in the project, should have been overseeing Westinghouse and spurring them on to do better. Westinghouse had given Georgia Power and its partners a fixed price contract to do the whole project and they were limited to some extent by how much they could micromanage the project. But Roetger argued that there should have been signs earlier that the projects were not going to meet budget or schedule, calling one subcontractor “a complete mess” that should have raised more red flags.

“A lot of time was wasted getting little work done,” he said. “We’ve been at this for many years and we still have a long way to go.”

Greene, on behalf of Georgia Power, pointed out monthly reports from Jacobs showing the company was actively and ”aggressively” trying to get the project contractors to do better.

“You get an A for effort,” Jacobs said. “But you did not get results.”

Source: The Augusta Chronicle

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