Donald V. Watkins
Is the Southern Company’s Vogtle Nuclear Power Project the New Three Mile Island?
Updated: 3 days ago
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on April 18, 2023
In 1979, a partial and costly meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania taught the American public, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the owner/operator of this nuclear power plant five critical lessons:
1. The construction of a nuclear power plant must be mistake free and subject to heightened inspections of every detail during the construction and operational phases of the plant.
2. Quality control of the project, from conception to power production, must be consistently outstanding.
3. Mismanagement of the project leads to catastrophic consequences. Due to radiation contamination, it took 14 years to clean up the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
4. Life within a 20-mile range of the nuclear power plant accident will change forever, as was the case with Three Mile Island. Radiation from a nuclear power plant meltdown is a catastrophic event. It makes contamination from a train derailment (like the recent one in East Palestine, Ohio) look like an overturned garbage can at a picnic.
5. The NRC and its decision-making process must be free from the political influence peddling that has permeated Washington, D.C. and spread like a cancer in every other agency of the federal government.
Investigations into the Three Mile Island mishap revealed that the meltdown occurred because of lapses by the owner, operator, and NRC in quality assurance and maintenance, inadequate operator training, lack of communication of important safety information, poor management, and complacency.
The NRC vowed that the Three Mile Island lapses would never happen again.
Is the Construction of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 Plagued by Poor Management and Shoddy Workmanship?
Georgia Power Company (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%), and the City of Dalton, Georgia (1.6%) are the four owners of the two new reactors – Units 3 and 4 – that are being built at the existing Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro, Georgia. The construction of Units 3 and 4 was originally estimated at $14 billion and was projected to be in service in April 2016 and April 2017, respectively.
In April 2023, the total cost of construction climbed to $35 billion. The owners now estimate that commercial operation will not begin until later this year -- more than seven years behind schedule.
Southern Nuclear Operating Company, an affiliate of the Southern Company, is the licensed operator for these Units.
From the beginning of the Vogtle project, Georgia's Public Service Commission (PSC) designated a team of staff personnel and outside consultant nuclear engineers and construction management experts who monitor the cost, schedule, and management of the Vogtle project. The members of the staff team present testimony to the Commission every six months that addresses the current state of construction and whether Georgia Power’s current cost and schedule estimates are reasonable. The testimony filed by the staff team documents the cost and schedule history of the Vogtle project, as well as the reasons why project costs have skyrocketed and schedules have slipped so significantly.
The best summary of the troubles plaguing the construction at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is presented in a January 2022 article written by David Schlissel, Director of Resource Planning Analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) titled, “Southern Company’s Troubled Vogtle Nuclear Project.” The IEEFA examines issues related to energy markets, trends, and policies.
The PSC’s team of nuclear experts has repeatedly identified the serious consequences that pursuing unrealistic schedules at any cost have had on the project at Vogtle. Some of these include:
A culture of production over quality;
A culture of poor inspecting or non-inspecting of work;
High personnel turnover and absenteeism;
Significant work backlogs;
High first-time component testing failure rates;
Need for extensive rework and retesting.
The shoddy workmanship and potentially catastrophic failures at the construction site fall within the five categories of instruction that are covered in basic high school industrial arts classes (e.g., Industrial and Engineering Drafting, Industrial Materials, Power and Energy, Information Industry, and Automation). Here are three examples of these failures:
1. Approximately 8% of the cabling that had been used in the construction needed to be recut/replaced, resulting in additional delays and costs to the project. As a result, approximately 500,000 linear feet of cable – equivalent to about 95 miles – had to be replaced.
2. Bolts that had been originally tightened had not been inspected at the time. So, each of those had to be loosened and then retightened to the specific torque value.
3. In 2022, there were some 26,000 electrical Inspection Records that had not been completed. While the work had been done, the inspection records weren’t complete at the time. The only explanation provided to the PSC for this faux pas was this: “someone didn’t do their job.”
The NRC has never knowingly allowed an ongoing criminal enterprise like the Southern Company to own and operate a nuclear power plant in the United States. Unlike the U.S. Department of Justice, which declines the prosecution of certain "too big to prosecute" criminals (e.g., Wells Fargo Bank, Hunter Biden, JPMorgan Chase, The Boeing Company, etc.) because of their political and financial connections to the White House, the NRC has a track record of independently protecting the public safety across-the-board, without exception.
Is History Repeating Itself? On February 10, 2012, the NRC issued the Southern Company, acting through Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear Operating Company) a combined “Owner/Operator” license for Units 3 and 4. It appears that the careless circumstances that caused the meltdown at Three Mile Island are repeating themselves at Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
The Southern Company has shown that it places production over quality. The Boeing Company did the same thing with its brand new 737 MAX airplanes that had back-to-back fatal crashes in 2017 and 2018, within a year of being placed into service. These crashes resulted in the deaths of 346 passenger and crew member deaths and the loss of $20 billion in sales and $50 billion in re-engineering and remedial work.
Rather than doing the work right, the Southern Company has embarked upon a program of substituting influence peddling in Washington for proper work at Vogtle. They have disregarded the higher construction and performance standards set in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island meltdown.
This is obviously why Kristine L. Svinicki was appointed to the Southern Company board of directors within 11 months of her resignation as Chairwoman of the NRC in 2021. It is also why Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy (2013 to 2017), was appointed to the board of directors in 2018.
The Vogtle project feels like a marriage between the worst aspects of Three Mile Island and the defective engineering, assembly, and production of Boeing’s original version of the 737 MAX deathtrap.
The Southern Company’s documented criminal history and its cavalier attitude about the quality of the construction at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 adversely impacts public safety. It also renders the company no longer “fit” to hold the combined license for Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
There are scores of utility companies that are capable and qualified to own and operate Vogtle, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Constellation Energy Generation Company, Entergy, Duke Energy, Old Dominion Electric Coop, NextEra Energy, and Florida Power & Light. Any one of these companies can take Georgia Power’s place in the ownership group.
Given Oglethorpe’s pending litigation against Georgia Power for cheating in its allocation of the cost overruns among the co-owners, Oglethorpe might welcome a new co-owner of Units 3 and 4.
Fulton County DA Fani T. Willis and the NRC are the Public's Last Line of Protection
Today, Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani T. Willis, who has received a criminal complaint in her office against the Southern Company for a massive $27 billion accounting fraud and racketeering enterprise, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has a complaint challenging the Southern Company’s “fitness” to participate in the Vogtle project as an owner/operator, are the only two independent government agencies with the integrity, resources, and ability to (a) reign-in the Southern Company’s lawlessness, and (b) protect the public safety from runaway criminal conduct.
The other federal agencies in Washington, with portfolio responsibility for regulatory and law enforcement oversight, have been hopelessly compromised by influence peddlers and Washington “insiders.”
Part 2 in this week's series of articles on Vogtle nuclear power project will focus on why the Southern Company is inept and unfit to own and operate this facility. Stay tuned!