Fuel Loading Only Major Milestone Left for Vogtle Unit 3 Nuclear Project

Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, reported during the company’s earnings call on July 29 that hot functional testing (HFT) had been completed on Vogtle Unit 3, and that the “next and final major milestone” is fuel load. “We project fuel load to occur sometime near year-end 2021 or early in 2022,” he said.

The Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion project includes the addition of two new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors—Units 3 and 4 at a site near Waynesboro, Georgia, that has two existing units. (Unit 1 began operation in 1987 and Unit 2 began operation in 1989.) The project is owned by four partners—Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corp. (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power, 22.7%), and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).

Construction on Unit 3 and 4 has been a long, drawn-out process. Southern Nuclear (a subsidiary of Southern Company) filed for an early site permit (ESP) application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in August 2006. Southern Nuclear, with the help of NuStart Energy Development LLC, submitted original and supplemental combined construction and operating license (COL) applications in 2008 and 2009. Construction of the two AP1000 reactors was approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission in March 2009, and the NRC approved the ESP and limited work authorization in August 2009. The COLs for Units 3 and 4 were approved in February 2012.

Contractor Changes

Several contractor changes have occurred over the years, including from The Shaw Group to CB&I to Fluor to Southern Nuclear and Bechtel. Original costs have escalated and timelines have been modified, including Unit 3 and 4 in-service dates being extended most recently from November 2021 and November 2022, to second-quarter 2022 and first-quarter 2023, respectively. Still, the completion of HFT on Unit 3 is a key milestone toward completion.

This July 2021 photo shows construction continuing, along with demobilization of the Lampson crane, at the site of the Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion in Waynesboro, Georgia. Courtesy: Georgia Power

“Through testing, we have validated the operation of critical primary and secondary systems at full temperature and pressure, and demonstrated that the design basis is sound. The completion of hot functional testing marks the last major milestone before fuel loading and represent a significant step towards placing Unit 3 in service,” Fanning said.

Georgia Power’s share of the total project capital cost forecast increased by $460 million in the quarter reported on Thursday. Fanning said that was largely driven by “our updated schedule, recent productivity trends, and replenishment of contingency to fund expected future risks.”

Fanning pointed to four items that would affect the timing of fuel loading. “One, completion of the nuclear fuel systems and the associated documentation—or paper, as I referred to it in the past. Two, completion of remediation work and additional work identified during hot functional testing. Three, completion of the work necessary to implement our plant support systems. And four, a reduction in productivity levels consistent with recent site performance.”

Lessons Learned

Fanning suggested that lessons learned from hot functional testing in China, where the first commercial AP1000 units are in operation at the Sanmen and Haiyang facilities, was helpful for the team at Vogtle. “I want to say it was the first unit that went through HFT in China [that] actually had to re-perform their HFT. So, they had significant operational issues concerning vibrations and a variety of other things, and that took over six months. We have passed through those issues—we learned from them and from the issues they experienced—our plant worked great. So, we are as we thought we would be,” he said. Although HFT took longer than Southern Company had expected, Fanning said the company remains “committed to getting it right for all aspects of the project.”

In the meantime, Fanning said work is progressing as planned. Using an automobile analogy, he explained, “Now that we’ve completed HFT effectively, we take the car, and lift the hood, and look at the engine, and see what happened. The experience in China showed that there shouldn’t be any big things happen—that’s our experience in China—but certainly, that’s an important part of work.”

Southern Company reported that Unit 4 was approximately 84% complete and had achieved initial energization in May. The need to extend the in-service date to the first quarter of 2023 was said to have been caused by several factors. Among them were slower than expected recovery from pandemic-related staffing reductions in early 2020, the delay in Unit 3’s HFT slowed plans to transition resources to Unit 4, and difficulty attracting and retaining skilled labor, especially electricians.

Notably, Fanning said Unit 4 was now on an independent track from Unit 3. “In prior earnings calls, we talked about an optimal relationship is nine months and 12 months. We have stopped the idea. It no longer is applicable to think about the track for Unit 3. Unit 4 is now on an independent path from Unit 3,” Fanning said.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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