Donald V. Watkins
NRC Must Put Safety First at Vogtle Nuclear Plant, Which the Southern Company Has Failed to Do
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on April 20, 2023
In January 2023, the Southern Company started up Vogtle Unit 3 near Waynesboro, Georgia to perform criticality testing. The Unit started vibrating and the testing had to be shut down.
Incredibly, the construction team failed to install the support systems specified in the original engineering plans and specifications to prevent this disastrous circumstance.
This vibration incident was a failure of basic engineering work, which was not detected in real-time because of a failure of basic project management. An embarrassed Southern Company CEO Thomas Fanning was forced to announce this construction-related problem and the required remediation work during his February 16, 2023, earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
Since 2017, Bechtel, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, has been performing the construction work at Vogtle Units 3 and 4. It is an engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) company. Bechtel should have caught this construction mistake long before the testing occurred.
Southern Nuclear Operating Company, an affiliate of the Southern Company, is responsible for managing all aspects of Bechtel’s construction work at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 to ensure that the work conforms to the approved engineering plans and specifications for the project. Unfortunately, they were asleep at the wheel, again.
The list of major construction-related mistakes that Southern Nuclear Operating Company has missed on the project management checkoff sheets for Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is staggering and dangerous.
Vibrations or shaking during testing of nuclear power plant equipment and systems can be caused by a variety of factors, including structural issues, equipment malfunction, and/or issues with the power grid.
Unbelievably, both Bechtel and Southern Nuclear Operating Company missed the engineering checkoff during construction for the installation of the required support systems to prevent the Unit from vibrating. This mistake is analogous to installing a motor in a new car without installing motor mounts to keep the motor from vibrating and tearing loose from the car frame over time.
This is the kind of mistake that leads to a catastrophic event if it occurs during Vogtle’s commercial operations.
This construction mistake is the best example of why an affiliate of the Southern Company
-- Southern Nuclear Operating Company -- should never have been allowed to oversee the construction work of a Southern Company-owned nuclear power plant and never been permitted to self-certify the completion of EPC engineering and construction work at the heightened performance levels established by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after 1979.
An Inherent Conflict with Potentially Deadly Consequences
It is an inherent conflict of interest for the Southern Company to police its own construction work on a nuclear plant. This conflict has potentially deadly consequences on an unimaginable scale.
At Vogtle, this conflict of interest has produced endless lapses in quality control, major deviations from the original Front End Loaded (FEL) plans and specifications, shoddy workmanship, compromises in safety, poor and inadequate project management, inadequate communications between Bechtel and Southern Nuclear Operating Company, and complacency.
These lapses were supposed to be prevented at future nuclear plant construction sites after the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history. On the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale, Three Mile Island is rated at Level 5 – Accident with Wider Consequences.
After the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the NRC announced that it would no longer depend on self-certifications of owners/operators to address these categories (and others) of critical matters at nuclear power plants.
Critics have argued that this system of self-certification has allowed the Southern Company to cut corners and prioritize capping costs over safety. This, in turn, has led to design flaws and failures that could produce another Three Mile Island disaster.
At this juncture, the NRC has two options to protect the public. The first option is a shutdown of the “lemon” nuclear plant. This is not an attractive option because it punishes the Southern Company’s three innocent co-owners -- Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%), and the City of Dalton, Georgia (1.6%), who hold the majority interest in Units 3 and 4. Georgia Power Company, a Southern Company affiliate, owns 45.7% of the Units.
The second and preferred option is for the NRC to pause its final approval of the Vogtle project until there has been an independent inspection and thorough review of: (a) all FEL plans and specifications, (b) all EPC construction work, (c) all identified flaws in the construction, (d) all remedial work and documentation of work completion, (e) all operational systems, safety systems, protocols, operating manuals, and personnel training, and (f) a qualified, capable, and independently chosen monitoring panel of nuclear experts are in place. The review must be done by a team of experts picked by the NRC.
Considering the troubled history of the Vogtle project and the Southern Company’s ongoing history of construction-related mistakes, the NRC should afford the Southern Company absolutely NO input in selecting panel members. The company’s only obligation should be limited to cooperation with the monitoring panel and paying the NRC the cost of this quality control measure – for the life of the project.
Finally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be guided by this basic principle when dealing with the Southern Company – believe what the company has done on the Vogtle construction project, and not what the company says it will do -- after it has been caught recklessly cutting corners on the project.