Science & Environment
5:00 am
Thu January 16, 2014

Factory Delays Push Back Construction At SC Nuclear Plant

Construction on some of the first nuclear plants in decades has suffered delays but is recovering ground, regulators of the project say.  The two new reactors at the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, South Carolina will take more than six months longer than projected, at a potential cost of $200 million. The regulators blame a new building process for the delays, but do not rule out ratepayers covering the cost.

The construction site at the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Jenkinsville, S.C. in August, 2013.
Credit South Carolina Office of Regulatory Service

Traditionally, most of a nuclear plant’s construction takes place on-site—the reactor, and the bulk of the buildings and components that surround it, are assembled at the plant. The new units at V.C. Summer are being built modularly, a first for U.S. nuclear construction. Jean Soult at the state Office of Regulatory Staff likens it to dividing the buildings into blocks, which are constructed in a factory and then assembled on site.

“The building blocks go together first and once you get those building blocks, you get your pumps and valves in there, and then you can run some flow through that.”

But regulators say the factory in Louisiana in charge of the “blocks” has not reliably done its job. Major parts are behind schedule. For instance, the walls to contain the reactor’s steam generator have not shipped, causing a snowball of holdups that regulators project could turn into 15-month delays in parts of the project. If that number reaches 18 months, then the project is out of compliance with state law. 

“I believe they may have found themselves with a little more than they had reckoned for,” state regulator Anthony James says of Shaw, the company that was running the factory through last year.

James says Shaw had little nuclear experience, but another company, Chicago Bridge and Iron, bought Shaw a year ago, and nearly doubled its staff at the factory. Since then, James says his office believes the project is making up lost ground.

“It’s not a warm and fuzzy feeling, but we have more confidence than we did say two or three months ago,” he says.

Still, the completion dates for the new units have been pushed back nine months and seven months, respectively, to late 2017 and late 2018, at a potential cost of $200 million, according to SCG&E, the South Carolina utility that owns a majority of the project. It is unclear who will be on the hook for it. James says it should be the factory owners, but that could change with negotiation.

South Carolina law allows the utility to charge ratepayers for projects under construction. Right now, nearly 11 percent of each SCE&G customer’s bill is going toward VC Summer, according to regulators.