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Construction time uncertain for Ga. nuclear plant

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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Power said its $6.7 billion budget to build a new nuclear plant is holding steady, but it reported Thursday that builders face "challenges" sticking to the construction schedule and costs could change in the future.

The Southern Co. subsidiary and its co-owners are building two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta. That plant and a sister facility under construction in South Carolina are the first in a new generation of nuclear plants built in the United States.

Georgia Power has so far spent $2.8 billion on the project, according to company filings. The other owners, Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton, do not report their spending to the Public Service Commission.

The latest cost estimates are uncertain. Utility officials and regulators have previously said Georgia Power does not have a schedule from the companies designing and building the plant, Westinghouse Electric Co. and Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., that detail construction activities past the end of 2015.

"The Company expects the Contractor to employ all possible means to meet the current schedule targets; however, schedule pressures continue to challenge the project," the report said.

Project schedules have slid since the plant was first approved. The first new reactor was supposed to start producing power in April 2016, with the second following a year later. Georgia Power has since pushed that schedule back to late 2017 and late 2018. Delays are bad for the nuclear industry and electric customers. The longer it takes to build a nuclear plant, the more Georgia Power and its co-owners must pay to finance construction and pay for other charges.

Ultimately, customers pay those expenses unless regulators intervene.

The latest estimates from Georgia Power show it remains cheaper to finish building the nuclear plant than to stop and instead build gas-fired power plants.

Analysts have been watching Georgia Power's filings for any signs of additional delays or costs. The current budget does not earmark any money for resolving an ongoing lawsuit between the new plant's owners and the firms who are designing and building it.

SCANA Corp. recently announced its builders have warned the in-service date for the first of its new reactors in South Carolina would be pushed to late 2018 or the first half of 2019. The second reactor in South Carolina would start producing power a year later. The same engineers, builder and suppliers are involved in the South Carolina and Georgia projects, leading to questions over whether Georgia Power might announce similar delays in the future.

The Southern Co. executive overseeing the Vogtle expansion, Joseph "Buzz" Miller, said there are site-specific differences in the timelines between the two projects.

Miller said Georgia Power's construction contract would force Westinghouse Electric Co. and CB&I, not utility customers, to absorb many delay-related losses. It may be possible to build some parts of the plant faster than expected, minimizing some potential delays.

"We have a contract that doesn't give them an incentive for delaying," Miller said.

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Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.

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