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Kempner: ‘Idle’ workers cited at Georgia’s delayed Vogtle project


Add “idle” workers to the list of troubles at Georgia Power’s struggling nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle.

Construction workers are supposed to be toiling away on the project that’s already three years behind schedule and falling farther behind.

But a state monitor recently testified that “idle time, early quits and late starts remained high” among construction workers on the first new-from-scratch U.S. nuclear energy project in 30 years.

“Low productivity has been a continuing issue,” according to written testimony by the construction monitor, William Jacobs, and Steven Roetger, a Georgia Public Service Commission staffer assigned to oversight of the project. They cited reviews by a consultant for the project’s contractor.

Attempts to improve the pace of work had little effect on productivity in the last year, they added. In fact, crucial parts of the construction have faced growing delays.

That’s on a project that’s already billions of dollars over budget and at risk of digging in for a few billion more, money that Georgia Power will likely try to get customers to cover.

But don’t put the blame on workers out in the field, Will Salters told me.

He’s the business manager of Local 1579 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as well as president of the Augusta, Ga., Building & Construction Trades Council, which includes a variety of unions with members working at Vogtle.

“None of them are slackers,” Salters said.

The trades council has complained to the contractor and Georgia Power about the issues, including missing information in work packets, materials that aren’t where they should be, blueprints that aren’t available and a shortage of proper management, he said. “They’ve assured us they are going to correct them.”

If workers had that, “you’ll never see them standing around.”

“Other jobs we have, you don’t typically have these problems,” he said.

Under review

Georgia Power is reviewing the testimony, company spokesman Jacob Hawkins wrote in an email to me.

“It is worth noting the significant progress made at the site during the last half of 2016, including efforts to improve productivity through a variety of specific actions … ,” he wrote.

Nuclear power plant construction is a huge and complex endeavor. Thousands of people are on the Vogtle site near Augusta. That includes hundreds of employees of Georgia Power and other Southern Company units as well as thousands of workers that have been attached to the contractor, Westinghouse Electric, or subcontractor Fluor Corp.

Georgia Power and parent Southern have not had control over most of the workers. But now they are taking on some duties once performed by Westinghouse, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year after eating billions of dollars in cost overruns itself.

It is not clear how often Vogtle construction crews are not working and idle.

Georgia Power blacked out those percentages from public versions of the monitor’s testimony. (The figures were produced by the contractor’s consultant in field reviews conducted in 2016 and earlier this year.)

Apparently Georgia Power considers that a trade secret. Odd, right? (I’ve asked for a full, unaltered copy under the Georgia Open Records Act.)

By the way, what the consultant defined as idle time apparently does not include when workers have to wait for materials, tools, quality sign offs or engineering reviews.

Other problems

There have been lots of other problems that have slowed Vogtle’s expansion. The list includes everything from design delays and paperwork issues to poor quality modules supplied by outside firms.

Delays grew for years, well before Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection in March.

Maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

The state monitor suggested that the financial troubles shouldn’t have been a surprise had Georgia Power and Westinghouse produced a deeply detailed and accurate integrated project schedule early on.

“Westinghouse’s voluntary bankruptcy was not the result of unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances,” he testified. “… the true cost and time to complete the Project could have been known five years ago had a reasonable IPS been developed.”

He wrote that such a plan would have shown long ago that the project’s costs and schedule “were severely underestimated.”

That’s the half-empty view.

Here’s my half-full alternative: Georgia Power and Westinghouse “severely overestimated” what they could handle. Now, Georgia consumers will be pushed to pay to make up for it for decades to come. Sorry, if you were hoping for a little idle time of your own.

Related coverage:

Georgia Power has new deal with Plant Vogtle contractors

Radioactive questions loom over Georgia’s mess at Vogtle

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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