Vogtle AP1000 project: the end is in sight, at last5 October 2023
Georgia Power’s ambition and that of its parent company, Southern Company, to build two AP1000 units at the Vogtle nuclear power plant site has survived massive cost and schedule overruns, to say nothing of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of its main contractor and technology provider, Westinghouse. But Vogtle 3 is now in commercial operation and unit 4 is not far behind. The Vogtle AP1000 construction saga is finally reaching a successful conclusion and its “impact is much bigger than a single project”, suggests Brendan Bechtel.
Above: Vogtle 4 (nearest) and Vogtle 3, with Vogtle 1&2 in the background (photo: Georgia Power)
July 31 2023 saw Vogtle 3, the USA’s first Generation III+ advanced nuclear unit, a Westinghouse AP1000 pressurised water reactor – installed capacity 1114 MWe – enter commercial operation. This was ten years on from completing placement of first nuclear concrete, on 14 March 2013.
It is the first new nuclear reactor to start up in the United States since the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2 was commissioned in 2016.
As of 17 August, a second AP1000 at the site, Vogtle unit 4, had started initial fuel load after completing hot functional testing in May in “record-setting time”, with commercial operation expected in the fourth quarter of 2023 or early next year. There will then be four Westinghouse PWRs in operation at the site, with an installed capacity of some 4600 MW of “reliable, carbon-free electricity”, establishing Vogtle as the largest producer of electricity in the USA, surpassing the 4210 MWe Palo Verde plant in Arizona. The first two reactors at the Vogtle site, which is located near Waynesboro, Georgia, with a combined installed capacity of 2430 MW, came on line in the late 1980s. They have undergone licence renewal and can now operate until 2047 and 2049, respectively, which is 20 years beyond the 40 years of the original licences.
Vogtle unit 4, employing advanced nuclear fuel manufactured at Westinghouse’s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, will be the sixth AP1000 reactor to reach commercial operation worldwide, two at the Vogtle site and four “setting operational performance records” in China, with six additional reactors under construction there. Poland recently selected the AP1000 reactor for its nuclear energy programme, Ukraine has made firm commitments for nine AP1000 units and Westinghouse announced in June that Bulgaria plans to construct an AP1000 unit at the Kozloduy VVER nuclear site. The technology is also under consideration at several other sites in central and eastern Europe, the UK, India and elsewhere in the United States.
At the end of this decade, it is expected that there will be twelve AP1000 reactors in operation around the world.
Westinghouse says its AP1000 technology, employing modular design and construction methods, “truly offers the benefits of Nth-of-a-kind status with a global fleet and a mature supply chain.” These factors “greatly improve the economics and mitigate schedule risks for future customers.” Interestingly, Westinghouse notes, “the Vogtle team demonstrated significant efficiencies at Unit 4, utilising experience earned from Unit 3.”
“We can do new nuclear energy in America, and we must continue to do new nuclear in America,” said Patrick Fragman, president & CEO at Westinghouse. “The lessons-learned, and the experience gained through these vital units at Vogtle, as well as the competencies and capabilities we built with our supply chain, prepare Westinghouse well for continued new nuclear units to address our climate change and energy security objectives.”
The AP1000 units at Vogtle, with their Generation III+ classification, have fully passive safety systems, relying on gravity and natural circulation for core cooling, and “the smallest footprint per MWe on the market”, says Westinghouse.
They employ GE steam turbines.
The expected power plant operating life is 60 to 80 years.
However, the project has not been without its problems, all too familiar in nuclear new build. Early construction work at Vogtle 3 and 4 began in 2009, although first nuclear concrete (often used as a starting point when comparing nuclear plant construction times), was not poured until four years later).
Originally expected to cost $14 billion and begin commercial operation in 2016 (Vogtle 3) and 2017 (Vogtle 4), the project ran into significant construction delays and cost overruns, with Westinghouse entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017. The total cost of the project is now estimated at more than $30 billion.
Two other AP1000 reactors were planned in the USA, for the VC Summer site in South Carolina, but construction was terminated in 2017.
Bechtel was brought in to take over construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4, also in 2017, drawing on its experience of “supporting the design and construction of 150 nuclear plants worldwide.”
Vogtle’s completion “reinforces that the United States is the responsible partner of choice for new nuclear energy around the world, and maintains US interests in ensuring strong safety, security, and non-proliferation standards,” said Brendan Bechtel, chairman and CEO. “This is why Vogtle’s impact is much bigger than a single project.”
Bechtel partnered with North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) to complete the plant. At peak, Bechtel and NABTU had a combined 9000 workers on site.
Bechtel has a long history of involvement with the Vogtle site, having worked on the construction of Vogtle units 1 and 2.
Plant Vogtle is jointly owned by Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%). Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, owns two nuclear facilities, Hatch as well as Vogtle, which provide about 20% of the electricity used in Georgia. The plants are managed and operated by Southern Nuclear, a sister company owned by Southern Company, which specialises in nuclear operations. Southern Nuclear also operates the Farley nuclear plant, which is owned by Alabama Power, another subsidiary of Southern Company.
Oglethorpe Power is a power supply co-operative, serving 38 member electricity corporations, and owned by them.
Towards the end of July, Georgia Power announced it was in receipt of the ‘103(g) finding’ from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for Vogtle 4. This signifies that the new unit has been constructed and will be operated in conformance with the Combined License and NRC regulations. No further NRC findings are necessary in order for Southern Nuclear to load fuel or begin the start- up sequence for the new unit, says Georgia Power.
Vogtle AP1000 timeline
- Georgia Power filed for an Application for Certification of Vogtle units 3 and 4 with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) in August 2008.
- The Georgia PSC approved the need and cost-effectiveness, granting approval to implement the proposed Vogtle expansion in March 2009.
- In August 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an Early Site Permit and Limited Work Authorization. Construction starts.
- The NRC issued the Construction and Operating Licenses (COLs) for Vogtle units 3 and 4 in February 2012.
- March 2013, first nuclear concrete placed for Plant Vogtle expansion.
- In 2014, the US Department of Energy and Georgia Power closed on loan guarantees for the construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4, “providing customers approximately $265 million of present-value benefit.”
- Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2017. Southern Nuclear assumed control of the Vogtle 3 and 4 site. Bechtel was brought in by Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear to take over construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4.
- 21 December 2017, Georgia Power received unanimous approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to complete units 3 and 4.
- October 2022, fuel loading at Vogtle unit 3.
- March 2023, Vogtle 3 achieves initial criticality.
- April 2023, Vogtle 3 synchronised to the grid.
- May 2023, Vogtle 3 achieves 100% power for the first time.
- 31 July 2023, Vogtle 3 declared commercial.