Southern Company presses NRC for expedited license amendment to avoid further slippage at Vogtle, construction of “nuclear island” not yet underway
Durham, NC – Less than two months after receiving a nuclear construction license for new reactors at its Vogtle site in eastern Georgia, Southern Company is already requesting a license amendment to allow changes to the foundation on which the reactor building would be built. A request which the company aimed to file by last Friday seeks to relax standards for the concrete foundation due to Southern’s miscalculation of soil compaction, and the company is pressing regulators for swift approval to avoid what it calls “an additional delay in the construction of the nuclear island basemat structure and subsequent construction activities …”.
In a letter to the NRC dated March 30, 2012, Southern Company admits that construction of the reactor base has not yet begun and that construction will begin in mid-June – if NRC quickly approves the licensing change. It had been thought that pouring of so-called “nuclear concrete” would begin immediately on issuance of the construction license in February, but the letter confirms the long delay.
Friday’s expected License Amendment Request (LAR) is not yet available to the public, but Southern Company’s preliminary notice* about the forthcoming amendment request describes how recent surveys determined that a level foundation for three “nuclear island” buildings cannot be obtained unless the previously allowed one-inch variation in the “mudmat” substrate is increased to four inches. The nuclear island foundation supports the weight of the buildings and equipment and is vital in protecting the plant against earthquakes and other loads.
Southern told NRC that the increased tolerance should not impact earlier analyses or require additional testing, and it warned that the unforeseen need for the foundation change could cause serious delays to numerous parts of the project. But public interest groups pointed out today that foundational concrete is central to the entire project, and that any relaxing of requirements could have serious safety and cost implications.
“Southern Company clearly miscalculated soil compaction in the holes excavated for both reactors at the Vogtle site, which could be an omen about the path forward,” said Jim Warren of NC WARN today. “The NRC simply cannot skip any steps in reviewing this fundamental safety issue just to accommodate the construction schedule, and a public hearing on the design change is warranted.”
32 AMENDMENT REQUESTS = MORE DELAYS?
Additionally, Southern Company has already identified 32 License Amendment Requests it will seek by 2014. The list of LARs** contains little mention of impacts on construction schedule or cost. Nor is it clear how the list of proposed changes might impact a federal lawsuit that is seeking to stop construction at Vogtle.
NC WARN and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability believe that the changes being sought via the LARs could add millions to cost overruns already documented at Vogtle and lead to other construction delays.
The public interest groups noted today that each LAR proceeding normally takes up to one year or longer, and that one or more of the nine nonprofits contesting the Vogtle project might choose to intervene in any of the 32 license amendments being sought. Regardless of interventions, the NRC’s ability to handle so many license amendment reviews is in question.
Also, it is not clear whether Georgia utility law allows Southern to continue construction without the NRC’s full approval of LARs – while pre-charging ratepayers for the plant. And the problems could further complicate a pending and highly controversial $8.3 federal taxpayer loan guarantee.
Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability said today, “The foundation problem raises questions about quality control and highlight concern about slippages in the construction schedule. The foundation problem and the long list of scheduled license amendments show that other changes and unexpected hurdles are ahead for the Vogtle project.”