The modern American nuclear power industry is not known for its punctuality, but the spread of a tenacious virus certainly doesn't help.

Utility Southern Company reported Thursday that the "COVID-19 pandemic has impacted productivity levels and pace of activity completion" at Vogtle 3 and 4, the only nuclear power plant construction currently underway in the U.S. Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power owns the largest stake in the project sited near Augusta, Georgia.

The company still expects the units to meet their latest in-service deadlines of November 2021 and 2022, and has not changed the project's forecast capital cost. Those timelines and costs are already years behind the initial schedule and billions of dollars over the original budget. Power Magazine has a helpful play-by-play of the reasons for that, including faulty rebar, mid-project design changes, faulty welds, multiple reshuffles of the construction contractor responsibility, and the bankruptcy of AP1000 reactor supplier Westinghouse.

Work at Unit 3 proceeded mostly according to plan through March, though a backlog of tasks started to accumulate. Halfway through April, the project cut its 9,000-person workforce by 20 percent to allow for better social distancing. 

At the time, 42 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and 57 were waiting for test results, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. That number rose from six confirmed cases as of April 10.

Unit 3 has passed the 90 percent construction mark, Southern Company said, and under an aggressive work plan could enter service as early as May 2021. Unless, that is, COVID-19 intercepts it at the finish line.

Southern Company's electricity mix includes more low-carbon sources compared to a year ago. (Credit: Southern Company)

Coronavirus-related social distancing policies also hit the retail electricity business at Southern Company, which owns regulated utilities Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Mississippi Power. The most pronounced impact came during the week ending on April 17, when COVID-19 impacts pushed sales down by more than 10 percent.

In a scenario where stay-at-home orders lift by midsummer and the economy recovers slightly, 2020 retail sales would be down between 2 and 5 percent, the utility group estimated. That equates to $250 million to $400 million in missing base revenue; any extension of the distancing policies, or a persistent economic slowdown, would exacerbate the loss.

Southern Company's electricity mix has nudged in a cleaner direction so far in 2020. Coal generation dropped from 22 percent to 13 percent since 2019. Renewables rose from 12 percent to 18 percent, and gas nudged up from 50 to 52 percent.