VC Summer nuclear project rolling now + video

At least 16 giant cranes dot the skyline over the V.C. Summer nuclear plant north of Columbia, a year after S.C. Electric & Gas won approval to start building two new reactors.

On the ground, roughly 1,900 workers, including 750 craftsmen and 500 professionals such as construction managers and engineers, have begun to slowly transform the 240-acre site in Fairfield County.

And while there have been delays, the Cayce-based energy giant said Wednesday during a media tour that the nearly $10 billion project is under budget and that construction – and hiring – are cranking up as the kinks get worked out.

The Summer reactors – along with two in Georgia – are the first new nuclear reactors under construction in U.S. in about 50 years in what was supposed to be a nuclear renaissance. That movement has cooled, however, amid tighter regulations, increasing concerns about carbon and questions over what to do with the waste those reactors will generate.

Construction is moving forward, however, with the Summer reactors and those at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

In Fairfield County, two of thefour cooling towers are starting to take shape, the bottom head of Unit 2’s containment vessel, which will house one of the new reactors, has been fabricated and crane-lifted into place, and the rebar concrete walls of one of the turbine buildings rises above ground level even higher.

However, the plant’s first new reactor unit still isn’t expected to be finished until up to 18 months behind its original 2016 schedule, SCE&G officials said.

And while the plant’s total future cost remains a projected $500 million below initial forecast costs, a public dispute between SCE&G and a Louisiana module vendor looms over who will pay for the projected $200 million cost of the construction delay.

“We tried to put a stake in the ground, and we said that (the upper cost of the delay) was going to be about $200 million,” said Steve Byrne, SCE&G chief operating officer and generation and transmission president. “Now, who’s responsible for that piece has not been determined yet. So that will be a negotiation between ourselves and our consortium partners,” Westinghouse and Chicago Bridge & Iron, which recently purchased the Shaw Group, Byrne said.

CB&I’s module construction facility in Louisiana is the source of the delays, SCE&G said.

“We’ve been having some delays from that facility in Louisiana,” Byrne said.

SCE&G directed CB&I to take a look at the Louisiana company’s schedule for future delivery of the sub-module components, and how that schedule would impact the overall project completion.

“Right now, we’re working onsite to a late 2017 (Unit 2 completion) schedule,” Byrne said. “We expect a similar shift in Unit 3. We can’t start both units up at the same time.”

Byrne said under Public Service Commission guidelines, either a 24-month acceleration or 18-month delay in project completion still falls within acceptable schedule boundaries.

Going forward, Byrne said the Louisiana plant has improved significantly, and the Summer plant now has a backlog of inventory in its module assembly building for the first time.

“They’re getting their act together,” Byrne said. “They appear to have turned the corner. There’s more work to do than we have people right now. That’s what you want in a facility like that.”

SCANA, the parent company of SCE&G, has planned the new reactors for decades and owns a 55 percent stake in the $10 billion Summer plant expansion.

State-owned utility Santee Cooper owns a 45 percent stake in the project, but is seeking to divest part of its stake to a suitable buyer. While it has had formal talks with several potential buyers, Duke Energy is the only utility currently still interested, officials have said.

SCE&G has been granted rate increases by the Public Service Commission over the past couple years to pay for the new units at the plant in Jenkinsville.

The latest rate hike to customers – a 3 percent increase – was granted in June and will go into effect in October. That would raise customers’ bills by more than $50 a year for people using an average of 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.

The company has said adding the new nuclear capacity is necessary to meet growing customer demand, and avoid penalties from the government for carbon emissions.

Nuclear generation accounted for 11 percent of SCE&G’s total capacity in 2012, the company said, but will account for about 30 percent of the company’s energy output in 2019, along with 30 percent natural gas output, and 30 percent coal, for a balanced energy portfolio.

“What’s changing is, we’re getting much more infrastructure,” said Bill Fox, CB&I vice president and project director for Unit 2 and 3, sizing up the plant’s evolution since getting the federal go-ahead to proceed with construction.

“The work force is increasing, you see a lot of components being delivered at the job site, a lot of planning going into the next phase, concrete’s being poured, we’re readying the site for commodity installation (pipes, wires and equipment), deliveries are coming in, and it’s a hub of activity every day as you come to the site,” Fox said.

In some construction activities, plant craftsmen are working around the clock, seven days a week, Fox said.

“We’re absolutely still hiring,” Fox said. By the end of the year, 200 more craftsmen may be added to the plant’s construction payrolls, he said. Then next year, the plant should move toward the projected 3,500-person full construction pool, Fox said.

“There’s a pep in the step of the work force and they’re all excited to be here,” Fox said