ATLANTA — Contractors building a new nuclear plant in eastern Georgia have indicated the first reactor may be further delayed, potentially pushing back the start of its commercial operation into early to mid-2017, a Southern Co. executive said Tuesday.
The utility has not agreed to that timeline and maintains that contractors can still speed up the construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, said David McKinney, the utility's vice president of nuclear construction support for the new plant. Construction delays have the potential to increase the utility's costs, which are ultimately paid by the roughly 2.4 million customers of Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power.
"We don't agree with those dates," McKinney said under cross-examination during a hearing before state utility regulators. "We believe there is potential for great improvement."
The project schedule has slid, initially because it took longer than expected for Southern Co. to secure permission from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the first in a new generation of nuclear power plants.
The first of the new reactors at Plant Vogtle was originally slated to produce commercial power starting on April 1, 2016, with the second reactor following a year later. In August, the utility publicly acknowledged those dates were unrealistic. Instead, it aimed for getting the first reactor operational no earlier than November 2016, with the second coming online the following year. The timeline that McKinney discussed would add months onto those projections, although the utility has not agreed to them.
"The November 2016 and November 2017 dates we believe are probably theoretically achievable — it would take significant compression to achieve them," McKinney said.
Southern Co. owns a roughly 46 percent stake in the new reactors. The other owners include Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton. The project is under cost pressure. Georgia's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, allowed Southern Co. to spend up to $6.1 billion as its share of the estimated $14 billion project. The company now projects its cost will reach $6.2 billion, though it has not formally asked regulators to raise the spending limit.
The utility and the project contractors — The Shaw Group and Westinghouse Electric Corp. — are locked in a legal dispute over who is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in unanticipated project costs. The contractors want Southern Co. to pay about $425 million as its share of costs related largely to license delays. Southern Co. says it is not responsible for those costs.
Utility officials have said that completing the nuclear plant remains cheaper than building the next-best alternative, a gas-fired power plant. Company executives have also said potential cost increases could be offset by benefits such as federal tax credits or government loan guarantees to help finance the project. While utility executives said Tuesday they expect to get the tax credits, negotiations are ongoing over the loan guarantees.
Several protesters urged the Public Service Commission to reject the project, largely because they view nuclear power as unsafe.
"They don't know what to do with the waste," said Scout Kilbourne of Mableton.