Feb. 14--WAYNESBORO, Ga. -- When approaching Plant Vogtle from the north on River Road, progress on its latest construction project is evident.
Off in the distance you'll see the Unit 1 and 2 cooling towers producing steam just as they always have since the late 1980s. A bit closer, you'll see two more towers -- one complete and another well on the way -- belonging to two new units being constructed at the Burke County site. Units 3 and 4 are the first nuclear reactors to be constructed in the U.S. in nearly three decades.
The cooling towers, though a relatively minor portion of the project, are perhaps the best signal to surrounding communities that work continues despite construction delays and cost overruns, said Mark Rauckhorst, vice president of Plant Vogtle Unit 3 and 4 construction.
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"It is for a lot of people, especially people in the community because instead of seeing two towers on the horizon they see four," he said. "I think it's a great indicator of the progress on the overall project."
Units 3 and 4 were originally scheduled to be online by 2016 and 2017, respectively, but hit a few snags caused by shipment delays and disputes between contractors and the project's co-owners, Georgia Power being among them. Current estimates have both reactors operational by 2020, making Vogtle one of the most powerful electricity generators nationwide.
Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said Wednesday that despite the adjustments and the settlement agreement between contractors and the projects co-owners, customer impact rates should still stay within the 6 to 8 percent range through the end of construction, below the previously suggested 12 percent hike.
"Once the new units come online, they are expected to put downward pressure on rates and deliver long-term savings for customers," he said.
Georgia Power says that the project is 60 percent complete in terms of "contractual milestones," but its executives testified to the Georgia Public Service Commission in November that actual construction was only 26.4 percent complete.
The work site employs nearly 5,000 workers from administrators to pipe fitters to welders, and on Wednesday all were working diligently on various aspects of the project.
In the massive module assembly building, for instance, workers were piecing together an equally massive auxiliary building that will accompany the Unit 4 reactor vessel, which is in a nearby tent. Once complete, the walls will be removed from the module assembly building and the structure will be moved into position to be picked up by the 560-foot-tall heavy lift derrick, which is among the largest cranes in the world.
At the Unit 3 nuclear island, workers in hard hats and vests navigated scaffolding around the containment vessel to make adjustments around the 2.2 million-pound CA-01 module inside.
Though there were no workers to be seen, scaffolding was also wrapped around the top of the Unit 4 cooling tower, which currently stands about 400 feet. The tower is expected to top 600 feet when finished in June, mirroring the Unit 3 tower completed last year, Rauckhorst said.
"Not only is this an incredibly large construction project, it's a large logistics project, too," he added, noting the tractor-trailers regularly entering the site.
It's organized chaos personified. Piles of rebar, fleets of heavy equipment and cement trucks and troves of workers were all scattered about the site Wednesday, but each had a purpose. Orchestrating all the moving parts takes some of the blame for the delays because speed takes a backseat to safety, Rauckhorst said.
The construction site logged more than 11 million safe work hours last year with no "lost time" accidents.
"If you build it right and you build it with quality the rest will take care of itself," he said, using Units 1 and 2 as an example.
However, the Georgia Public Service Commission wants to take a closer look at how Georgia Power made its decision that led to increased costs and construction delays. According to a statement from the commission issued last week, Georgia Power is to "provide all reasoning and documentation so that the Commission can determine whether all the costs associated with the schedule delays and the settlement are reasonable and prudent" and has 60 days to do so.
"Regarding this process, from Georgia Power's perspective, we welcome the prudence review of all capital costs spent on the project to date," Hawkins said. "All costs have been reviewed through the rigorous and transparent Vogtle Construction Monitoring process and we are confident that our investments have been made prudently."
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