All eyes on Vogtle, first U.S. nuclear reactor in a generation
There may be one thing that Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers wants to emphasize the most about the expansion of nuclear power-generating Plant Vogtle: It has to be perfect.
The two new reactors at the plant, just south of Augusta near the South Carolina border, are the first to be built in the United States since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. And with that, Bowers said the nation and the world will be watching. The pursuit of perfection is to the point of turning back concrete-reinforcing metal “rebar” with a 90-degree bend if it’s off by one-sixteenth of an inch, he said.
“The nation and the world are really watching this project. Georgia Power is one of the first ones out to be developing this platform for the United States,” he said, adding that China will beat this expansion by a year or two. But “getting it under this type of regulatory regime is what everybody is watching. So it has to be perfect. I don’t want to overemphasize it, but it is something we have to think of.”
The two new reactors are expected to go online in 2016 and 2017, with an estimated cost of $14 billion, though projected overruns could put that closer to $15 billion, according to The Augusta Chronicle. The two plants would produce an estimated 2,200 megawatts of electricity.
Bowers said the process has meant working hand-in-hand with regulators: A welcome change from when the first two reactors were built in the 1970s and regulators were enforcing design changes while shovels were in the dirt. He described the current efforts as not “overly burdensome, but … intensely focused to make sure we get it right.”
“We want them engaged from a regulatory process,” he said. “We don’t want to be second-guessed after something is installed and concrete is poured over it.”
The process includes documenting every step of the construction, from the welds to the metallurgy used to make the bolts, Bowers said. It’s also called for ramping up a workforce that hasn’t needed this kind of expertise in a generation. For one, the bar set for building a natural gas plant, even an exceptional one, isn’t as high as the bar for building a nuclear plant, Bowers said.
“You think about it, this country hasn’t built one in over 30 years,” he said. “The building trade had to get engaged, the unions and the welders and the craft, and getting them to a level of expectations and expertise was one of the things we needed to work toward.
“I mean a weld in a scrubber is a weld. A weld in a nuclear plant is not just a weld.”