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Vogtle construction faces "additional delay"

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Late March, less than two months after receiving a nuclear construction license for its new Vogtle reactors, Southern Company is already pressing Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an expedited license amendment to avoid further slippage. Delays are already considerable, since pouring of the concrete, planned to start immediately after receiving permission in February, will not start before June. Furthermore, Southern Company has already identified 32 License Amendment Requests it will seek by 2014. This could add millions to cost overruns already documented at Vogtle and lead to other construction delays.

Less than two months after receiving the nuclear construction license for Vogtle in eastern Georgia, Southern Company is already requesting a license amendment to allow changes to the foundation on which the reactor building would be built. A request which the company aimed to file by last Friday seeks to relax standards for the concrete foundation due to Southern’s miscalculation of soil compaction, and the company is pressing regulators for swift approval to avoid what it calls “an additional delay in the construction of the nuclear island basemat structure and subsequent construction activities …”.

In a letter to the NRC dated March 30, 2012, Southern Company admits that construction of the reactor base has not yet begun and that construction will begin in mid-June – if NRC quickly approves the licensing change. It had been thought that pouring of so-called “nuclear concrete” would begin immediately on issuance of the construction license in February, but the letter confirms the long delay.

In the filing made public early April, Southern has asked the NRC to allow it to pour the foundation at its own risk in June even though the foundation may not meet current license specifications. Southern asked that NRC approve the preliminary amendment request (PAR)  by June 1. If NRC does not object to a PAR, the licensee may proceed with the action described at its own risk while the agency reviews the related license amendment. If NRC were to subsequently reject the license amendment request, the licensee would have to restore the site to an acceptable condition, the agency has said. Industry pressed for the PAR process to prevent project delays while NRC conducts year-long reviews of license amendments.

Southern Company’s amendment request describes how recent surveys determined that a level foundation for three “nuclear island” buildings cannot be obtained unless the previously allowed one-inch variation in the “mudmat” substrate is increased to four inches. The nuclear island foundation supports the weight of the buildings and equipment and is vital in protecting the plant against earthquakes and other loads.

Southern told NRC that the increased tolerance should not impact earlier analyses or require additional testing, and it warned that the unforeseen need for the foundation change could cause serious delays to numerous parts of the project. But public interest groups pointed out today that foundational concrete is central to the entire project, and that any relaxing of requirements could have serious safety and cost implications.

“Southern Company clearly miscalculated soil compaction in the holes excavated for both reactors at the Vogtle site, which could be an omen about the path forward,” said Jim Warren of NC WARN today. “The NRC simply cannot skip any steps in reviewing this fundamental safety issue just to accommodate the construction schedule, and a public hearing on the design change is warranted.” 

32 Amendment requests
Additionally, Southern Company has already identified 32 License Amendment Requests it will seek by 2014. The list of LARs contains little mention of impacts on construction schedule or cost. Nor is it clear how the list of proposed changes might impact a federal lawsuit that is seeking to stop construction at Vogtle.

NC WARN and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability believe that the changes being sought via the LARs could add millions to cost overruns already documented at Vogtle and lead to other construction delays.

The public interest groups noted today that each LAR proceeding normally takes up to one year or longer, and that one or more of the nine nonprofits contesting the Vogtle project might choose to intervene in any of the 32 license amendments being sought. Regardless of interventions, the NRC’s ability to handle so many license amendment reviews is in question.

Also, it is not clear whether Georgia utility law allows Southern to continue construction without the NRC’s full approval of LARs – while pre-charging ratepayers for the plant. And the problems could further complicate a pending and highly controversial US$8.3 federal taxpayer loan guarantee.

Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability said: “The foundation problem raises questions about quality control and highlight concern about slippages in the construction schedule. The foundation problem and the long list of scheduled license amendments show that other changes and unexpected ahurdles are ahead for the Vogtle project.”

Source: News release from NC WARN and Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, 9 April 2012 / International Energy (, 10 April 2012
Contact: NC WARN (North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network), P.0. Box 61051, Durham NC 27715-1051, USA.
Tel: +1-919 416-5077

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