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Pressure On As Southern Co. Builds Nuclear Plant

By RAY HENRY

WAYNESBORO, Ga. (AP) â¿¿ Southern Co. has had a simple message for the past few years: The effort to build the country's first new nuclear power plant in a generation was on time and on budget. Now, that message is changing.

The $14 billion project to build two reactors at Plant Vogtle is trending hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and trailing more than a year behind schedule, according to a report from a state-hired construction watchdog. Now top-ranking utility executives are saying quality counts more than cost.

"I say this very carefully â¿¿ we manage it so we keep costs the best we can," said Buzz Miller, executive vice president of nuclear development at Southern Co., who oversees the project. "But building it right's priority one. The absolute capital number here is not what's important. What's important is the overall project, economic and value to the customers for the next 60 to 80 years."

Until recently, more typical were statements like these from Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning in a September 2011 speech: "We are on budget. We are on schedule. Heavy lifting to go, but we'll be successful."

In a move that raised eyebrows of project critics, the company recently said that a contingency fee of 20- to 25-percent was normal for a project of this size. It did not request a contingency fee when state regulators approved the project.

Much rides on the project. Industry officials ranging from Fanning to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledge it's a test for whether the nuclear industry can construct new plants without the chronic delays and cost overruns seen in the last round of construction decades ago.

"If this project goes forward and is built on-budget, on-time and on-schedule, that would be a very good thing," Chu told reporters during a February visit to the site. "A lot of other companies will say, 'OK. We now know we can do this and it would be a good investment.'"

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