Nuclear Plant Construction: A Trial of Patience

Constructing a nuclear power plant is not for the faint of heart. The process is lengthy, even when there aren’t delays. To understand some of the hurdles, it’s worth reviewing the Plant Vogtle expansion timeline. Vogtle is the only U.S. nuclear construction project currently in progress following the abandonment of V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 earlier this year.

Mega Projects Take Mega Time

In February 2005, Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of Southern Co., sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), notifying the agency that it intended to submit an application for an early site permit (ESP) for a new nuclear plant. The company then went through the arduous process of selecting a site (Plant Vogtle); selecting the technology it intended to use (Westinghouse’s AP1000 design); and actually filing the ESP, which it did in August 2006. Filing an ESP is only one of the initial steps; Southern Nuclear also needed to submit an application for a combined construction and operating license (COL), which it did in March 2008.

A month later, Georgia Power, the Southern Co. subsidiary that built and co-owns Vogtle Units 1 and 2, entered into an engineering, procurement, and construction agreement with a consortium of Westinghouse and The Shaw Group to build Vogtle Units 3 and 4. Georgia Power submitted a nuclear self-build option to the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) in May 2008. The PSC certified construction the following March.

The Westinghouse-Shaw consortium was given notice to proceed in April 2009 and began mobilizing to the site at that time. In August 2009, the ESP was received from the NRC. It included limited work authorization—an industry first—which allowed some safety-related construction at the site prior to issuance of the COL. That same month, excavation for the new units began, and in March 2010, the first safety-related construction began when backfill was placed in the area excavated for Unit 3.

In the meantime, a lot of other work was also taking place. Georgia Power negotiated with the Department of Energy to acquire loan guarantees for the project, the NRC evaluated environmental impacts of the project and reviewed the reactor design prior to issuing its final safety evaluation report, and training commenced for Unit 3 and 4 employees. Millions of work hours had been completed at the site before the NRC issued the COL for the Vogtle expansion in February 2012.

Contractor Musical Chairs

However, getting the COL in place was just a minor hurdle compared to constructing the first-of-a-kind facility. That chore has created headaches for some pretty solid companies.

As previously mentioned, the Westinghouse-Shaw consortium began the construction project. In mid-2012, CB&I got involved when it agreed to acquire The Shaw Group. The company closed on the deal in February 2013. Although CB&I has a lot of talented folks, the company struggled to keep the AP1000 projects on track. By October 2015, it decided it had had enough, and the company sold its nuclear construction and integrated services businesses to Westinghouse.

At that point, Westinghouse brought in Fluor Corp. to manage a significant portion of the construction. Fluor was expected to provide “project execution and direction, accountability for and management of professional staff and craft personnel, and a focus on safety, quality and project delivery certainty.” But the project continued to struggle, and Westinghouse would ultimately pay the price. In March this year, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, which it said stemmed from “certain financial and construction challenges in its U.S. AP1000 power plant projects.”

Southern Nuclear assumed control of the site from Westinghouse at the end of July. A month later, it brought in Bechtel to replace Fluor. Only time will tell if the new team can right the ship and bring the units online in accordance with the latest schedule, which projects Unit 3 to enter commercial operation in November 2021 and Unit 4 to do the same a year later.

Mixed Bag Around the World

The U.S. isn’t the only country finding it difficult to build nuclear plants. New units in Europe are also besieged by delays.

In Finland, Teollisuuden Voima Oyj announced on October 9 that Olkiluoto 3—a European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) that a group led by Areva began constructing in 2005 and originally expected to bring online in 2009—has been delayed yet again. The company anticipates commercial operation will now begin in May 2019.

Flamanville 3 in France—another EPR—is also behind schedule and over budget. Work on that unit began in 2007 with commercial operation projected in 2013. EDF, the plant owner, recently got some good news for a change. The reactor vessel head, which had been under scrutiny due to anomalies in the composition of the steel, was approved for use through the end of 2024 by the French nuclear regulator. EDF said cold tests would begin in December and hot tests would follow next July, with commercial operation now expected in late 2018.

Yet, there are success stories too. In September, Fuqing 4—a 1,087-MW CPR-1000 unit—entered commercial operation less than five years after construction began. That gave China its 38th operational reactor with 19 more under construction, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Barakah project in the United Arab Emirates—four Korea Electric Power Corp. APR-1400 units—is another that has remained mostly on schedule. The project officially began in July 2012, and initial construction work was completed on Unit 1 in May 2017. Federal regulatory approval to load fuel is still needed, however, and the unit is not expected to operate until next year. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.