Utility watchdog: Additional year of delay possible for Georgia nuclear plant, raising costs

Energy Associated Press

Finishing a nuclear power plant in Georgia may take almost a year longer than expected, a government monitor said Tuesday in testimony that raises the possibility of a delay costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

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An analyst for the Public Service Commission, Steven Roetger, said the timeline for finishing two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle (VOH'-gohl) is trending almost a year longer than currently scheduled. The first new reactor was supposed to be running by late 2017, followed by the second in late 2018.

Roetger said he could not estimate how much further delays might cost. An analyst working for Georgia's utility regulators has estimated a one-day delay would cost $2 million for Georgia Power, whose customers ultimately pay the utility's construction costs. By that rough yardstick, a one-year delay would cost $730 million.

Georgia Power never endorsed the $2 million-per-day estimate. The company has not formally changed its schedule, though it acknowledges the project timeline is under pressure. The state's financial analysts say finishing the nuclear reactors is cheaper than building the next-cheapest option, a gas-fired power plant.

"Benefits may be delayed, but they don't disappear with a schedule extension," Georgia Power spokesman Brian Green said in a written statement.

The utility estimates it will spend $6.7 billion on its share of the project, or $591 million more than its state-approved budget. That estimate does not include the potential for more delays or the cost of resolving a lawsuit between the power plant's owners and its builders and designers.

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While builders can try accelerating construction to make up for lost time, doing so becomes more difficult as time passes, Roetger said.

Roetger and nuclear engineer William Jacobs Jr. criticized Georgia Power for relying on an outdated construction schedule to manage the complicated, multi-billion dollar project. The builders are using a plan containing almost no detail after December 2015. Roetger and Jacobs said it was "imprudent" not to have that schedule.

"I'm a little frustrated," Roetger said. "We've talked about this with the company for a long time."

That word — imprudent — is certain to get the attention of Southern Co. executives. By law, the state's elected utility regulators can prevent Georgia Power, a regulated monopoly, from billing its customers for any construction costs the commission decides are the result of "imprudence." The commission is delaying any final decisions on construction costs until after the first reactor is finished.

Georgia Power officials say its contract with the reactor's designer, Westinghouse Electric Co., and builder, Chicago Bridge and Iron Co., protects Georgia Power customers from extra labor, equipment and material costs. But Georgia Power would be responsible for paying its own borrowing costs. It's also possible the builders might try forcing Georgia Power to absorb extra costs caused by any future delays.

Georgia Power owns a 46 percent stake in the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle. The other co-owners, Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton, do not report their spending to the Public Service Commission.

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Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.