“We still expect to meet the November regulatory-approved in-service dates for both Units 3 and 4,” Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning said during the company’s first quarter earnings call on April 30. The in-service dates he was referring to are November 2021 and November 2022 for Units 3 and 4, respectively, at the Vogtle nuclear expansion project near Waynesboro, Georgia. The project is owned by four partners: Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corp. (OPC, 30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power, 22.7%), and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).

Furthermore, Fanning said site managers continue to believe they can hit target dates set in the company’s “Aggressive Site Workplan,” which are May 2021 and May 2022, respectively. “Is it riskier than it was before? Yeah. But it’s still a reasonable objective; otherwise, we wouldn’t stick with it,” said Fanning.

Significant Progress Made on Both New Vogtle Units

About two weeks ago, Southern Company announced it would reduce the workforce on the project by 20% in an effort to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. Yet, in spite of the pandemic, the Vogtle project reported good progress in April. The site said the construction completion rate was about 1.25%, which exceeds the approximately 1% per month needed to meet the November in-service dates, although it is under the 2% per month required to achieve the aggressive site work plan. Fanning said direct construction was approximately 90% complete at the end of April.

One notable achievement that Fanning happily reported on was the completion of open vessel testing on Unit 3, which he said had been finished only a few hours prior to the call. Open vessel testing verified that water flowed properly from key safety systems into the reactor vessel, thereby ensuring paths were not blocked or constricted. The milestone confirmed that pumps, motors, valves, pipes, and other components of the systems functioned as designed. It also prepared the unit for cold hydro testing and hot functional testing, which are both critical tests required prior to initial fuel loading. Cold hydro testing is currently scheduled to begin in June or July, while hot functional testing will follow, reportedly in the August to September timeframe (Figure 1).

Vogtle-Unit-3-timeline-schedule
1. The in-service date for Unit 3 is projected to be in May 2021, according to the project’s Aggressive Site Workplan, while the regulatory-approved in-service date is November 2021. Source: Southern Company First Quarter 2020 Earnings Conference Call Presentation

In February, before COVID-19 had seriously impacted the U.S., Southern Company accelerated the targeted completion date for Unit 4 by two months to March 2022. Yesterday, however, Fanning announced the date had been pushed back to May, which was the target prior to the most recent change. Still, several interim milestones were reached on Unit 4 during the quarter, including the installation of the 300-ton polar crane and setting of the containment vessel top head.

Responding to the Pandemic

In March, when COVID-19 became more of a concern, the company opened an onsite medical clinic accessible to all Vogtle Units 3 and 4 personnel. North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) praised Southern Company for its coronavirus response. The clinic is open 24/7 and staffed with medical professionals who can administer tests for illnesses such as flu, strep, and COVID-19. The free onsite services provide workers convenient medical care solutions and quick test results, according to the NABTU. In addition to the clinic, precautions to maintain health of those onsite include:

  • Implementing self-isolation for team members who have been in close contact with individuals undergoing testing.
  • Promoting prevention guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as social distancing.
  • Staggering break times.
  • Canceling large in-person meetings.
  • Suspending buses and trams onsite.
  • Implementing aggressive cleaning practices.

“The health and safety of our members and their families is always job number one,” NABTU President Sean McGarvey said in a statement. “We commend the extraordinary measures taken by Southern Company at Plant Vogtle to go above and beyond the call of duty to keep our members safe and healthy. Together, with great partners like Southern Company, the building trades are doing whatever it takes to help our country during this time and that includes ensuring we continue to safely operate, maintain and build new infrastructure to keep our nation powered and safe.”

Costs Remain Unchanged

Fanning said there was no change in the total capital cost forecast for the project from previous disclosures. He noted that $66 million had been allocated from Georgia Power’s project contingency fund during the first quarter, “reflecting cost risks associated with construction productivity, field support, subcontract, and procurement, as well as the impacts of the April 2020 reduction in workforce.” Fanning said the company fully expects to utilize contingency funds in their entirety as the project progresses toward completion.

“The next few months will be pivotal as we adjust to a smaller, more streamlined workforce and seek to improve productivity,” Fanning said.

However, Southern Company does still have some margin built into the schedule. Specifically, the company has maintained a six-month window to go from fuel load to in-service. Fanning said that process only took four and a half months on AP1000 units constructed in China, and he believes the Vogtle project will meet or beat the Chinese timeline.

“So, look, November is what matters. We gotta beat November and our eyes are on that. The site continues to believe they can hit a May schedule,” said Fanning. “Has it gotten more aggressive? Yeah—still is a reasonable shot at it.”

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