Pencil and marker sketch of the extant, operational, Plant Vogtle Units 1 & 2 by the author.
On February 2, 2010, President Obama announced $8.3 billion in federal loans via the Department of Energy to the Southern Company and its daughter corporation, Georgia Power, for the construction of two new nuclear power reactors and their associated facilities at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia. This was the first new-build project for nuclear power reactors in the United States in thirty years and marked a supposed sea-change in how the federal government viewed nuclear and its dedication in terms of not only tacit support or lip-service but actual funding and backing for nuclear power. Moreover, the reactors chosen for this project with Westinghouse's AP1000 model which would represent the first American installation of this type of reactor (The V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina would also order two AP1000 reactors and the first of these will go online at the same time as the first of the two at Vogtle, but the NRC filing for Vogtle preceded efforts to secure permitting for Summer). Thus, the expansion at Vogtle is historic and is to a degree the face of the next generation of nuclear power in the United States.
The Southern Company aptly has provided a great, diverse, and exciting gallery of detailed photos of the construction progress month by month, allowing us all to see what goes into a project of this size and complexity. Most readers probably are aware of this gallery—I know Nuclear Street has covered it already—but if not, check it out below:
All of us in the nuclear industry should be excited for Vogtle. The process of construction has not, of course, been free from problems and rumors of problems to come. The construction has gone over its budget and of course such has drawn press attention and criticism, however, honestly, what large-scale construction project doesn't go over-budget? For that matter, how many houses worth over $200,000 do not go over-budget whilst under construction? Construction materials are not finite or static in costs and even the best of projections often come up wrong. Sub-contractors always have a strong vested interest in representing their costs as just as low as possible, then have to fess up later on more realistic costs as costs change—and often grow. Point being, nothing here is especial to Votgle's situation. If Vogtle had not gone over its budget, I'd consider it every bit a miracle.
There are also concerns with the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors. Some critics, including some at the NRC, have felt these reactors do not have the level of robustness and surety in their steel containment vessels to withstand a plane strike, intense storm surge, or other threat to their structures. Aside from a 9/11-type airliner strike into the containment building itself, it doesn't seem any such concerns are valid and Westinghouse has countered that even a large airliner would not produce the level of damage which would exclude the reactor design from the post-9/11 standards. Indeed, while John Ma—a senior structural engineer with the NRC—dissented from it, the NRC did still grant approval of the AP1000 design. Ma and other critics at the NRC and elsewhere may have concerns, but the AP1000 has sailed through many rough regulatory seas and fared fine overall, obtaining the permissions it requires under US law.
I'm very excited for Vogtle and for the installation of the AP1000 reactors. I am confident in this effort and happy to see us as a nation progressing ahead toward new reactors, new plants, and a return to nuclear as our leading source of clean energy. The photo gallery is a real treat: you don't get to see this type of construction step-by-step very often, and it's truly historic.