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Georgia PSC staff, witnesses: 2020 to be key year for Vogtle construction

The Georgia Public Service Commission's advocacy staff and third-party consultants said they expect 2020 will be a pivotal year for the construction of two new reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Nuclear Plant, amid questions over whether the project can be completed on schedule.

If Georgia Power Co., the majority project owner of Vogtle, and its partners Oglethorpe Power Corp., Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and City of Dalton, Ga., can reach hot functional testing on unit 3 in June 2020, then it will reassure confidence that the rest of construction of units 3 and 4 will stay on track, GDS Associates executive consultant William Jacobs Jr. said during a Dec. 10 hearing at the PSC.

If Vogtle falls behind on that milestone, "then it would be a good indication that the project is slipping," Jacobs said.

Jacobs' statement is part of his testimony with PSC staff and other independent monitors on Vogtle's latest construction update and the Southern Co. subsidiary's request to verify and approve $1.25 billion in project costs from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. Vogtle has accomplished several construction milestones, including setting a shield building roof atop unit 3. But PSC staff expressed concerns during the hearing and in their pre-filed testimony that Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear Operating Co. Inc. should focus on the completion of critical steps, not the start of them, to provide an accurate estimate on Vogtle's progress.

Several staff members and consultants said Georgia Power and its project partners will not complete Vogtle units 3 and 4 ahead of schedule and expressed concern the new reactors could miss their regulatory-approved dates of commercial operation, November 2021 for unit 3 and November 2022 for unit 4, pushing beyond the $17.1 billion in costs to completion.

During the hearing, Vogtle Monitoring Group Vice President of Engineering Don Grace said his team questions Georgia Power's ability to complete bulk construction and prerequisite activities to meet major milestones like hot functional testing.

"We hope we have more detail in the next six months," Grace said.

Grace, Jacobs and other witnesses told the PSC they expect Georgia Power will provide a "baseline" report in early 2020 that is more realistic than the April 2019 "re-baseling" schedule, which suggests Vogtle units 3 and 4 could beat their estimated commercial operation dates by six months.

While several environmental advocates have called for the Vogtle project to be canceled, a number of PSC staff members and consultants said the Vogtle project should not be abandoned and the request to approve project costs should be granted.

"The cost complete analysis shows you should continue with the project," Tom Newsome, the PSC's director of utility finance, said during the hearing, adding that it is more economic to complete Vogtle versus abandoning the project and building a combined-cycle gas unit. He added that there now exists "a small benefit compared to the sunk costs" to finish the two reactors.