Georgia reactors on schedule after workers hit by coronavirus

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More than 800 workers on Georgia's nuclear reactor project have tested positive for COVID-19, increasing costs and causing delays, Georgia Power Co. said in its latest report to state regulators.

More than 700 employees have returned to work, and another 100 have newly confirmed cases of the virus, but GPC says the twin reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle remain on track to come on line November 2021 and November 2022.

Construction at the Plant Vogtle nuclear project in Georgia. Of 7,000 workers onsite, about 800 have contracted COVID-19.

"Similar to the pandemic responses around the globe, the project team’s response plans have evolved as more information has become available," GPC's Aug. 31 report said. "The project’s reduction in workforce during April 2020 helped to slow the spread of the pandemic on-site, but also contributed in part to the increased costs, productivity challenges and milestone schedule delays."

In April, the utility cut the workforce by 20% to mitigate the effect of the pandemic.

GPC said its costs have increased to $8.5 billion, but that it isn't seeking approval for any amount above the $7.3 billion already accepted by the Georgia Public Service Commission. The PSC regulates investor-owned utilities like GPC, but it doesn't oversee the three other public power owners involved in the project.

The current construction cost projection for the two reactors is $17.35 billion, but that doesn't include financing costs of the four owners, which could push the total cost as high as $25 billion by some estimates.

Georgia Power owns 45.7% of the project, and its subsidiary Southern Nuclear Operating Co. is managing construction.

Combined, three Georgia public power agencies own 53.3% of the two new nuclear reactors.

Oglethorpe Power Corp., a power supply cooperative, owns 30% of the new reactors. The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, known as MEAG Power, owns 22.7%, and Dalton Utilities has a 1.6% stake. Most have issued revenue bonds to cover their costs.

Georgia Power is requesting that the PSC approve $701 million of capital expenditures incurred from Jan. 1 through June 30.

In June, Moody's Investors Service said GPC's changes to the timing of certain activities at Plant Vogtle were credit negative.

"As part of the changes, the project’s structural integrity test and integrated leak rate testing will now occur before cold hydro testing, and the start of cold hydro testing has moved to this fall from July," said analyst Jeffrey Cassella.

The shift in planned activities is primarily the result of continued challenges in electrical construction productivity, a previously implemented workforce reduction and adjustments to work practices at the project site amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

"The unexpected, late-stage changes to these planned activities is credit negative for Georgia Power because it signals that challenges with the project continue, increasing the likelihood of additional cost overruns and further schedule delays," Cassella said.

GPC mentioned the problems with electrical construction work in the Aug. 31 report.

As of July 31, the work at Plant Vogtle was approximately 87% complete, the report said.

Plant Vogtle is near Waynesboro, Georgia, where two nuclear reactors have been operating since 1987 and 1989. When completed Units 3 and 4 will produce 2,200 megawatts of electricity.

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