Politics Trumps Public Safety: The Southern Company's Making of a Nuclear Disaster at Vogtle
Updated: Aug 17
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on June 4, 2023
An Editorial Opinion
Because of: (a) basic engineering failures, (b) shoddy workmanship during construction, (c) $21 billion in cost overruns, (c) a political chokehold on the Georgia Public Service Commission, (e) cronyism and influence peddling within the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), (f) a calculated “wokeness” decision to hire Chris Womack as the Southern Company’s chief executive officer, and (g) direct political connections with President Joe Biden's White House, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the U.S. Department of Justice, it is highly probable that the Southern Company’s two newly constructed nuclear power units at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant will create the biggest nuclear disaster in the United States since the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
Vogtle has been a disaster in the making for Americans ever since the NRC issued a combined Owner/Operator licenses for Vogtle Units 3 and 4 on February 10, 2012. As explained in an April 18, 2023, article titled, “Is the Southern Company’s Vogtle Nuclear Power Project the New Three Mile Island?”, this disaster arises from the following contributing factors that have been documented by a team of nuclear experts:
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, and
Need for extensive rework and retesting.
The list of major construction-related mistakes that Southern Nuclear Operating Company missed on the project management checkoff sheets for Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is staggering and dangerous.
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 a few examples of these basic failures:
1. Approximately 8% of the original 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,“someone didn’t do their job.”
4. Bechtel, an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) firm hired by the Southern Company in 2017, and the Southern Nuclear Operating Company, the licensed operator and construction management firm for Vogtle Units 3 and 4, missed the engineering checkoff during construction for the installation of the structural support systems required to prevent Unit 3 from vibrating during start-up testing in January 2023. This costly 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.
The Vogtle Plant is jointly owned by Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%). The shoddy workmanship and remediation work at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 have resulted in $21 billion in cost overruns for the two construction projects, which were originally budgeted at $14 billion. Today, the total cost of the two Vogtle units is estimated at $31 billion. .
All three of Georgia Power’s partners in Vogtle sued the company in 2022 over the issue of cost overruns associated with Units 3 and 4. Two of these lawsuits are still pending in court, while the one filed by MEAG was settled last year.
The Southern Company’s Influence Peddling for the Vogtle Project is Obscene and Dangerous
The Southern Company’s political influence peddling for the Vogtle project is obscene and dangerous. It also evidences the Southern Company's chokehold on state and federal utility regulators, as well as its ability to impede criminal investigations by the Department of Justice into the company's business affairs.
In 2018, the Southern Company appointed Ernest J. Moniz to its board of directors. Moniz served as Secretary of the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama from May 2013 to January 2017. Moniz serves as the Southern Company’s direct link to President Joe Biden. The two men are buddies. His presence on the Southern Company’s board of directors also eases the way for final approvals needed from the Department of Energy.
In October 2021, the Southern Company appointed Kristine L. Svinicki to its board of directors. Ms. Svinicki served as a Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2008 to 2017 and then served as Chairwoman of the Commission from 2017 to January 20, 2021. Her presence on the board eases the way for final approvals needed from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In 2020, the Southern Company appointed Colette D. Honorable to the board. Ms. Honorable served as Commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The FERC regulates the wholesale sale of electricity and natural gas in interstate commerce and regulates the transportation of oil by pipeline in interstate commerce. The Commissions also reviews and licenses projects in the energy markets.
Ms. Honorable was nominated by President Barack Obama in August 2014 and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She served as a FERC Commissioner from January 2015 until her term expired in June 2017. Her presence on the Southern Company’s board of directors eases the way for any final approvals needed from the FERC.
An Act of “Wokeness” is Used as a Bridge Over Troubled Waters
The Southern Company is using its May 24, 2023 appointment of Christopher C. Womack as its CEO as a bridge over the troubled waters engulfing the Vogtle Units 3 and 4 projects.
Womack, a legendary womanizer, has no college degrees, professional licenses, industry certifications, on-the-job training, or practical experience in any field of engineering or nuclear power generation. Yet, Womack has become the public face of the Vogtle projects with the White House and key federal regulatory agencies in Washington.
Prior to his appointment as CEO of the Southern Company, Womack served as the CEO of Georgia Power for nearly three years. However, all major decisions involving Vogtle Units 3 and 4 during this period were made by former Southern Company CEO Thomas A. Fanning.
Prior to his Georgia Power CEO position, all of Womack’s job experience in the Southern Company and its affiliates was gained in the external affairs and public relations divisions of the company..
The external affairs and public relations divisions of the Southern Company handle a variety of influence peddling activities, including: (a) doling out campaign contributions to greedy federal, state, and local politicians, (b) awarding sponsorship money to legislative caucuses like the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington and Dr. Joe L. Reed’s Alabama Democratic Conference in Montgomery, Alabama, and (c) giving out free private jet rides and tickets to sporting events and concerts to federal, state, and local elected and appointed politicians and regulators, their spouses, lovers, and mistresses.
Former U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) is generally regarded as the greatest beneficiary of the Southern Company’s campaign money, free private jet rides, and free perks to federal politicians. Shelby never reported his private jet rides and other free perks. Shelby viewed them as a part of his Senatorial entitlement package, and the Southern Company willingly obliged him in this view.
Christopher Womack’s appointment as CEO of the Southern Company was designed to curry favor with the Biden administration’s by supporting his political “wokeness” agenda at the expense of the legitimate and well-documented public safety concerns arising from the two deeply flawed nuclear power units at Vogtle. Womack's appointment as CEO of the Southern Company was a self-serving corporate personnel action that elevated a symbolic “feel good” moment over public safety.
Nuclear Insurance and other Insurance Coverages for Vogtle Units 3 and 4
The Southern Company’s Form 10-K for 2022 states that the company’s “[o]peration of nuclear facilities involves inherent risks, including environmental, safety, health, regulatory, natural disasters, cyber intrusions, physical attacks, and financial risks, that could result in fines or the closure of the nuclear units owned by Alabama Power or Georgia Power and which may present potential exposures in excess of insurance coverage.”
Page II-162 of the Form 10-K describes the Southern Company's basket of insurance coverages on Vogtle's nuclear power units. These insurance coverages are as follows:
Under the Price-Anderson Amendments Act (Act), Alabama Power and Georgia Power maintain agreements of indemnity with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that, together with private insurance, cover third-party liability arising from any nuclear incident occurring at the companies' nuclear power plants. The Act provides funds up to $13.7 billion for public liability claims that could arise from a single nuclear incident. Each nuclear plant is insured against this liability to a maximum of $450 million by American Nuclear Insurers (ANI), with the remaining coverage provided by a mandatory program of deferred premiums that could be assessed, after a nuclear incident, against all owners of commercial nuclear reactors.
Alabama Power and Georgia Power are members of Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited (NEIL), a mutual insurer established to provide property damage insurance in an amount up to $1.5 billion for members' operating nuclear generating facilities. Additionally, both companies have NEIL policies that currently provide decontamination, excess property insurance, and premature decommissioning coverage up to $1.25 billion for nuclear losses and policies providing coverage up to $750 million for non-nuclear losses in excess of the $1.5 billion primary coverage.
NEIL also covers the additional costs that would be incurred in obtaining replacement power during a prolonged accidental outage at a member's nuclear plant. Members can purchase this coverage, subject to a deductible waiting period of up to 26 weeks, with a maximum per occurrence per unit limit of $490 million.
A builders' risk property insurance policy has been purchased from NEIL for the construction of Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4. This policy provides the Vogtle Owners up to $2.75 billion for accidental property damage occurring during construction.
Claims resulting from terrorist acts and cyber events are covered under both the ANI and NEIL policies (subject to normal policy limits). The maximum aggregate that NEIL will pay for all claims resulting from terrorist acts and cyber events in any 12-month period is $3.2 billion each, plus such additional amounts NEIL can recover through reinsurance, indemnity, or other sources.
A Nuclear Disaster at Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is Highly Probable.
According to the Southern Companies website, Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will be the first new nuclear units built in the United States in more than three decades, using the Westinghouse AP1000 advanced pressurized water reactor technology. Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC, which was the original EPC contractor for the Vogtle projects, went bankrupt working on Units 3 and 4.
If properly completed, the Vogtle site is expected to produce enough carbon-free electricity to power more than 1 million homes.
Georgia Power currently projects a Unit 3 in-service date later this month. Unit 4 is projected to be complete in either late 4th quarter of 2023 or 1st quarter of 2024.
Vogtle Unit 3 reached 100% power on May 29, 2023, marking a major landmark toward commercial operation. This event marked the maximum energy the unit is licensed to produce in the reactor core and is the first time the unit has reached its expected output of approximately 1,100 electric MW, which can power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses.
Once all startup testing is successfully completed and properly verified and validated, Vogtle Unit 3 will enter commercial operation.
Unit 4 completed hot functional testing on May 1, a significant step for the new unit ahead of initial fuel load.
The Vogtle site team is now focused on completing the remaining work necessary to submit documentation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that all inspections, tests, and analyses have been performed and all acceptance criteria, collectively known as ITAACs, have been met on Vogtle Unit 4 as required by Southern Nuclear Operating Company’s Combined Operating License. This is a Southern Company self-certification process.
Each ITAAC closure notice must be verified by the NRC before fuel can be loaded into the reactor.
On July 29, 2022, Southern Nuclear announced that all Unit 3 ITAACs had been submitted to the NRC. A mere five days later, on August 3, 2022, the NRC found that the acceptance criteria in the combined license for Unit 3 had been met. This allowed nuclear fuel to be loaded into Unit 3 and start-up testing to begin. Fuel load for Unit 3 was completed on October 17, 2022.
Unit 3 Started Vibrating During Testing in January and Had to be Shut Down
In January 2023, the Southern Company started up Vogtle Unit 3 to perform criticality testing. The Unit started vibrating during the testing and had to be shut down.
Incredibly, the Bechtel/Southern Nuclear construction team failed to install the support systems specified in the original engineering plans and specifications to prevent this disastrous event from occurring. This construction flaw was dangerous and inexcusable.
As expected, then-CEO Thomas Fanning downplayed this construction flaw and testing failure during his February 2023 earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
An Independent Engineering Review of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is Needed
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should pause its final approval of the Vogtle project until there has been an independent inspection and thorough review of: (a) all Front End Loaded engineering plans and specifications and major component equipment packages, (b) all EPC construction work, (c) all identified flaws in the construction, (d) all remedial work and documentation of work completion, and (e) all operational systems, safety systems, safety protocols, operating manuals, and personnel training by a qualified, capable, and independently chosen panel of nuclear experts.
Based upon the troubled history of the construction projects at Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the Southern Company lacks the trustworthiness to self-certify its full compliance with all applicable NRC licensure regulations.
Considering the sheer size, scope, and complexity of the Units 3 and 4 projects, and given the history and extent of the engineering flaws and shoddy workmanship at these units, there is no way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can thoroughly perform a high-quality inspection of the engineering, procurement, and construction work performed by Bechtel/Southern Nuclear in time to bring Unit 3 online this month -- without compromising public safety in a major way.
This is exactly why the meltdown at Three Mile Island happened. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yielded to political pressure from Three Mile Island's owner/operator and, in the process, compromised the soundness and safety of the nuclear plant's operations.
The NRC promised that this kind of political influence peddling would never happen again. However, all the objective evidence to date suggests that the Southern Company prowess at influence peddling is strong enough to cause the NRC to break this 1979 promise.
Interestingly, the NRC has not scheduled an evidentiary hearing on two February 3, 2023, complaints relating to the Southern Company's ownership and operation of Units 3 and 4, even though the complainants requested such a hearing prior to the issuance of the final operating permits for Units 3 and 4.
The complaints challenged the Southern Company’s “fitness” to hold a combined Owner/Operator licenses for Vogtle Units 3 and 4. When the licenses were issued for these units, the NRC explicitly found that the applicants were "fit" to hold the licenses for these nuclear plants, which is a requirement for licensure under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (as amended).
Because of the Southern Company's massive $27 billion accounting fraud scheme and its multi-state racketeering enterprise, the company is no longer "fit" as licensees of a nuclear power plant in America.
Additionally, it does not appear that any panel of credible and capable independent nuclear experts has been appointed by the NRC to review and assess: (a) the innumerable construction flaws, (b) the purported remediation work, (c) the installation of adequate safety devices and required redundancy systems, (d) the long-term and objectively measured reliability and dependability of each unit’s commercial operation, and (e) the adequacy of employee safety and training, plant safety protocols and procedures, and operational controls at Units 3 and 4.
Because the probability of a catastrophic disaster event at Units 3 and 4 is so high, all counties, cities, and communities within a 100-mile radius of Vogtle should be made aware of a NRC-approved “Disaster Plan” that sets forth an evacuation plan and describes what steps affected residents must take to minimize the loss of life when the nuclear disaster occurs at Units 3 and/or 4 prior to Unit 3 being placed into service. This has not happened.
Vogtle is One Hot Mess for All Involved
With more than 9,000 construction jobs at its peak and more than 800 permanent jobs available once the units begin operation, Vogtle 3 and 4 is currently the largest jobs-producing construction project in Georgia.
Operating 24/7/365, nuclear energy facilities produce more than half of all U.S. carbon-free electricity. The Southern Company claims that Vogtle will play an essential role in supporting its goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
If Units 3 and 4 are properly completed, the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant is expected to be the largest carbon-free generating asset in the country. For this reason, President Joe Biden is eager to showcase the Vogtle project as one of the Crown Jewels in his clean energy political program.
The Southern Company has placed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under extreme political pressure to get Units 3 and 4 approved for commercial operation. The company has subjected the Commission to non-stop influence peddling to secure the final authority needed to place Unit 3 in commercial service this month.
The Southern Company’s artificially high stock price, which is propped up by a long-running, massive $27 billion accounting fraud scheme, depends upon this event happening, quickly.
In 2017, the Southern Company, which is boggled down with $63 billion in fixed and credit facility debt, began faking profitability in the hope that it could bring Vogtle Units 3 and 4 online quickly, despite the faulty engineering work and shoddy workmanship at the construction site. The company even implemented a practice of borrowing money to pay consistent quarterly dividends in increasing amounts -- a practice that is expected to continue through 2025.
Privately, the Southern Company’s mantra since 2017 has been to “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Politics in Washington have now overtaken public safety in Georgia. As a result, the lives of residents in and around Waynesboro, Georgia will certainly be lost when the catastrophic disaster occurs at Vogtle Units 3 and/or 4.
At this juncture, the NRC seems to be focused on regulatory approvals that have more to do with propping the Southern Company’s stock prices and appeasing the Biden administration than providing public safety at Vogtle.
This is one hot mess for everybody involved in the Vogtle Units 3 and 4 projects.
Finally, I want the record to reflect that I did everything within my power as an independent journalist to prevent a highly probable catastrophic nuclear disaster at Vogtle. We will see if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does the same.