S.C., Ga. carefully watch China’s nuclear plant delays

A new cooling tower for a nuclear power unit that’s under construction at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle is shown last summer near the two operating reactors.

A U.S. power companies struggling with the escalating costs of building nuclear plants are closely watching similar efforts in China, where officials are expecting delays.

Two plants under construction in Sanmen and Haiyang, China, are the first-ever built using Westinghouse Electric Co.’s AP1000 reactor design. Utility companies in Georgia and South Carolina are building two similar plants in the United States using a very similar design. Since the project in China is further along, U.S. executives and safety regulators watch it closely.

Officials at China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. blame the delays on the late delivery of equipment from the United States. Westinghouse Electric and project manufacturers are working to redesign a coolant pump for the plant.

Chinese officials are building a fleet of nuclear plants as they aim to produce a fifth of their country’s electricity from nonfossil fuel sources by 2030.

“Because it is the first of this kind in the world, it is normal to have some delay,” said Guo Hongbo, director of the firm’s general office. He was vague on how long the delays may last. “It is not a problem whether the delay is one year or two years. The technological breakthrough will be utterly valuable to the development of ... world nuclear power.”

Danny Roderick, president of Westinghouse Electric, said the issues with the coolant pumps will be resolved before there’s any impact in the United States.

“You won’t see those delays at all,” he said.

Power plant owners and regulators in the United States have their own teams in China to monitor building efforts there. Chinese safety regulators have joined inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission when they review nuclear vendors, including the manufacturer of reactor coolant pumps.

Meeting deadlines is critical for projects in both countries. When nuclear plant construction slows down, building and financing costs can soar. That problem hobbled the nuclear industry during earlier rounds of building. Proponents had hoped the projects in China and the United States would demonstrate nuclear plants can be constructed without blowing budgets.

The U.S. projects are already under cost pressure. Westinghouse Electric and Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. expect construction of two new AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia will go three years beyond the approved schedule, according to financial filings. Southern Co., which owns a 46 percent stake in the plant, and the plant’s other owners have not accepted that timeline. A sister plant owned by SCANA Corp. and Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper in South Carolina’s Fairfield County north of Columbia has run into similar delays and cost overruns.