Complexity at Nuclear Plant Vogtle

You may know these facts:

Plant Vogtle, near Augusta, GA, is a new nuclear consortium construction project with three partners:  Southern Nuclear Company (SNC), part of Georgia Power, is the utility owner and provider.  Shaw Construction group is the fixed bid Engineering Procurement and Construction builder.  Westinghouse is the designer of the AO1000 model for units 3 and 4.

Fewer people know these facts:

1.   This project is historic.  This is the first time in over 32 years that there is a new nuclear construction project in the United States.  That fact has tremendous historical impact for many workers.  I have heard people state, “I am proud to be working on this site.  We are making history.  I look forward to telling my grandkids about the work we are doing now.”  This is the first project that Shaw and SNC have partnered on.  And, for the first time in history, the Shaw and SNC senior leaders have met for construction alignment meetings, offsite in October and onsite last week. These leaders are defining new, different ways to “get it done” while supporting different constituents- the utility owners, and the construction builders.

2.  This project is American.  Those patriotic values cannot be understated.  This project is US owned, and managed.  There are 104 operating nuclear plants in the US, more than twice as many as any other country.  Nuclear is part of the energy solution throughout the US.  Plant Vogtle is backed with federal loan guarantees, but all of the construction risk and reward is on the consortium partners.  In contrast, at other countries new nuclear construction is funded by governments including the French (Areva) and Japanese (Toshiba) and Chinese (China National Nuclear Corporation.)  At Vogtle, there are American Flag stickers on many hard hats.  These workers, both craft and field non manual employees, are proud of their contribution to the US job economy.

3.  This project has huge financial stakes.   On February 16, 210, President Obama announced $7.6 billion in federally backed loans.  He spoke beside the CEO/founder of Shaw Power, Jim Bernhardt, and several union workers.   Georgia Power, in response to requests from citizens, has added a line item on all Georgia Power utility bills so that energy consumers can know their level of their contribution to the Vogtle project.  One estimate of the financial contribution  to the Augusta, Ga and Aiken, SC region is at least $5MM.  Some estimates cite over 7,000 jobs averaging $70,000 over 7 years.

4.  Careers are being defined by the Vogtle Project.  There are currently 2,000 people on site, and that number will swell to over 5,000 once the Combined  License is awarded by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee.  This construction job is a fixed bid, slated to be completed in 6 years.  One construction schedule is 48 months.  That fact creates a sense of urgency, expectation.  Yet the NRC and regulatory culture requires caution, and compliance.  So there is a designed tension of “starts and stops” that is often stressful to all leaders.

5.   Despite these challenges, everyone chose to be on site.  Yes, there are other job sites.  And there may be future jobs that attract these workers.  However, each of these 2,000+ workers has chosen to be at Plant Vogtle.  Many have recently lost their living allowances, because of company policy changes, which may mean a 30-40% reduction in individual compensation.  Many have been reassigned.  Yet these are people who love to fix things.  As one coaching client recently told me, “We are guys who like to fix stuff.  That is why we picked the construction industry.”

Imagine the stage at Plant Vogtle:   In the past 3 years, acres of land have been carved into nuclear grade soil, thousands of cubic feet of concrete and steel rebar foundations have been poured to support the largest cranes in the world, and the nuclear island.  Hundreds of people have come and gone.  Thousands of people are on site.  Many craft were non union, and now most are union workers.  Imagine the complex levels of individual and organizational action.  Then imagine a work stoppage because of safety concerns.  Or a compliance concern.

Now imagine the stage ahead:  Can you even imagine over 5,000 workers working in harmony?  Now imagine them building a nuclear grade reactor, and scaffolding, with a new modular construction process, with unknown or changing regulatory concerns, amid a culture that invites open exchange of information, amid technological constraints that lead to delayed design drawings, or unclear compliance patterns.

Imagine those 5,000+ committed people getting the work done on time, under budget, according to their contractual agreements.  Thankfully, they share those goals.

I love the quote, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world.  Indeed, they are the only ones who have done so.”

Working with these leaders at Shaw Power Group and at Southern Nuclear Construction is an honor.  Despite their stresses and 15 hour days, they are committed to “getting it done.”

These are leaders who rarely “toot their owns horns.”    However, they are determining many new solutions to complex challenges.  (More on that later.)

So, how well do you think these leaders are responding to the complexities?