Once-secret audit from South Carolina raising questions for nuclear reactors in Georgia

November 9, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — The flurry of documents that became public following the cancellation of two unfinished reactors in South Carolina is raising questions for a similar project in Georgia.

On Tuesday, officials with Southern Co., one of the owners of the reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, were questioned sharply about a 2016 audit that found serious problems with the failed nuclear construction effort at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County.

Kurt Ebersbach, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, repeatedly asked Southern officials Tuesday whether the partially-built reactors at Vogtle were dealing with some of the same problems referenced in that 2016 audit.

The audit, which was released to the public in September, said Westinghouse’s designs for the new generation of nuclear reactors were “often not constructible.” The document from Bechtel, one of the country’s largest construction and engineering firms, raised serious concerns over hundreds of engineering changes per month, which stalled one of the first nuclear power projects in the United States in three decades.

That reality could be a serious problem for the unfinished nuclear plant in Georgia, since a coalition of utilities in that state are relying on the same designs to finish the reactors by 2022.

Southern and Bechtel, which is taking over as the contractor at Vogtle, told Georgia’s utility regulators that the companies developed a new cost estimate and schedule for the reactors. But in July, Bechtel admitted it had not independently verified if the power plants’ designs and engineering plans can work.

Vogtle is the only remaining nuclear power project in the country, but it is already years behind schedule and is now expected to cost $25 billion to complete the two reactors. Like the reactors in South Carolina, around one-third of the power plants in Georgia are built.

During a hearing in Atlanta, Ebersbach and other attorneys asked why Southern officials didn’t reference the 2016 audit from South Carolina in their proposal to continue construction near the Savannah River.

Mark Rauckhorst, Southern’s vice president of construction for Vogtle, suggested the utility hadn’t considered the audit because the company wasn’t aware of it until recently.

Ebersbach reminded Southern and Georgia’s five utility regulators that the audit has been public for two months, and that it was produced by Bechtel, the same company that took over construction at Vogtle earlier this year.

Like the abandoned reactors at V.C. Summer, attorneys asked if the Vogtle project could expect to encounter the same number of design changes moving forward.

“I don’t think the problem will ever cease to exist until we have the units online,” said Jospeh Klecha, the project director at Vogtle.

Since Westinghouse’s bankruptcy in March, Klecha said Southern has assembled a team to review the reactor designs ahead of time to ensure the engineering changes don’t slow construction any further.

“That’s where our confidence comes from. It’s not the fact that we think we have found every issue that might be out there. It’s our ability to respond to those problems and stay far enough ahead,” Klecha said.

At the same time, Southern’s officials tried to distance Vogtle from the South Carolina project, which has ended in a spate of lawsuits and investigations by law enforcement and Wall Street regulators.

“Our approach to oversight was very different than V.C. Summer from the very beginning,” Rauckhorst said.