Vogtle power plant

FILE- This June 13, 2014, file photo shows construction on a new nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro. Southern Co. is facing increasing pressure after announcing an 18-month delay on its nuclear plant in Georgia, a lag that could cost at least $720 million. Georgia regulators are already building a case to make the utility company’s shareholder eat some of those losses. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

ATLANTA — The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project near Augusta.

Atlanta-based Southern Co. announced this week that the workforce at the $25 billion project is being cut by 20%.

As of Wednesday, 42 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, while 57 were awaiting test results, the Augusta Chronicle reported Thursday.

Southern officials cited “challenges with labor productivity” as the reason behind the layoffs.

“It is expected to provide operational efficiencies by increasing productivity of the remaining workforce and reducing workforce fatigue and absenteeism,” the company stated in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “It is also expected to allow for increased social distancing by the workforce and facilitate compliance with the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

More than 9,000 workers were on the construction site in Burke County as of late March, meaning the layoffs could affect 1,500 to 2,000 workers. Southern estimated the cost of the layoffs at $15 million to $30 million, assuming absenteeism stabilizes and the project realizes intended productivity efficiencies in the coming months.

However, Southern officials said they do not expect the workforce reduction to affect the total cost of the project or the current completion schedule.

The cost of constructing two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle has nearly doubled since the Georgia Public Service Commission approved the project in 2009. The schedule also has slipped substantially, in large part because of the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric Co., originally the prime contractor.

The two new units originally were due to be completed in 2016 and 2017, but the latest schedule calls for finishing the first of the two reactors late next year and the second a year later.

Georgia Power Co. is the major partner in the Plant Vogtle expansion, partnering with Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and Dalton Utilities.

Plant Vogtle is the only nuclear power plant construction currently underway in the country, as other projects have been abandoned due to rising costs. The nuclear expansion also is the largest ongoing construction project in Georgia.

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