Despite its recent decision to trim the workforce at the Vogtle reactor construction project by about 20 percent to better address the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Company is confident that Units 3 and 4—twin AP 1000 pressurized water reactors—will be up and running according to schedule.
Southern says: "We remain focused on meeting the November 2021 and November 2022 regulatory-approved in-service dates [for Units 3 and 4, respectively], and we continue to maintain an aggressive work plan on-site as a tool to help position us to meet those dates,” said Tom Fanning, Southern’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer, in a first-quarter earnings call on April 30.
The company’s "aggressive" work plan was developed last year, with a May 2021 in-service date for Unit 3 and a May 2022 date for Unit 4. The plan became more ambitious still in February this year, when Southern revised the Unit 4 date to March 2022. In early April, however, cases of coronavirus at the Waynesboro, Ga., site began to be confirmed, ultimately leading Southern to shift Unit 4’s date back to May 2022. (According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, approximately 170 Vogtle employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 30.)
“Although overall monthly production through March was largely consistent with the refined aggressive site work plan, mechanical, electrical, and subcontract activities began to build a backlog to Unit 3’s aggressive site work plan at the end of March,” Fanning said. “That trend was exacerbated through April as we began experiencing impacts across the site related to the coronavirus pandemic, including an increase in workforce absenteeism.”
While conceding that the 20 percent reduction in the Vogtle project’s workforce is likely to result in a near-term production decrease, Fanning said that the company expects to gain operational efficiencies and productivity in the long term. He also cited a number of reassuring milestones, including the recent placement of the Vogtle-4 containment vessel head and the completion of open vessel testing at Vogtle-3.
The next major Vogtle-3 milestone, Fanning said, is the start of cold hydro testing, which should start in June or July, with hot functional testing starting in August or September. “On the assumption that we are able to stabilize and increase productivity to pre-pandemic levels, we are maintaining the aggressive site work plan target of year-end for Unit 3 fuel load,” he said. “As a reminder, construction completion of about 2 percent per month is consistent with the aggressive site work plan. Taking into account our performance to date, we now project that we need to complete approximately 1 percent per month to meet the November benchmark schedule.” Fanning added that the construction completion rate for April was about 1.25 percent.
Coping with COVID: The Southern CEO also noted a number of proactive measures taken at the site to protect its workforce and the surrounding community against the spread of COVID-19, including additional protective equipment, enhanced sanitation practices, and the implementation of social distancing strategies. “We acted quickly to build an on-site medical clinic designed to expedite test results, minimize turnaround time for close proximity screening, and improve facilitation of personnel to return to work,” Fanning said. “Throughout this time, we have remained in close consultation with the NRC and the project’s co-owners, as well as local and state authorities. We are also consulting with and monitoring other megaprojects. Notably, last month the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions commended Southern Company for going above and beyond the call of duty to keep their members on the Vogtle construction site safe and healthy.”