Nuclear licensing activity in the USA

The Wall Street Journal discusses the activity of companies trying to get nuclear plants certified and built.

Before seeking the combined construction permit and operating license, the NRC wanted utilities to first seek approval for their proposed plant sites, to determine their suitability. That, the commission said, would speed up the process of going through a standardized application process. Early site review wasn’t required, but it was strongly recommended. The NRC committed to a 42-month schedule for processing applications, once it had reviewed them for completeness.

When NRG Energy submitted the first full application for a plant, the plans immediately departed from the preferred process. NRG decided to skip the early site-permit process for its south Texas site, because it plans to put two new reactors next to an existing nuclear station. It picked a GE-designed reactor that was certified — but in 1996, so it already is out of date in some respects. NRG is seeking permission to make modifications that reflect a decade of operating experience in Japan and technology advancements like better computer controls.

The approach contains some risk for utilities. Modifications sought by equipment vendors, as part of certifications, are decided once and for all by the NRC. But modifications sought by utilities as part of plant licensing can be challenged in each case. In the past, this provided an avenue for lengthy delays by opponents.

Four reactor designs are certified for U.S. use, but only two — the earlier GE design picked by NRG and a Westinghouse design, called the AP 1000 — have attracted interest from U.S. customers. The Westinghouse design has been selected by the most companies.

Westinghouse got its reactor certified in December 2005, but it is back at the NRC asking for changes in its design. Some fix errors, some come in response to NRC requests — for example, the post-Sept. 11 requirement to design plants to withstand airline crashes — and some are sought by customers. The NRC review is expected to take a couple of years. In the meantime, several power companies are expected to submit their combined construction and operating-license applications.

Constellation, which is expected to submit an application soon, also decided to skip the early site review for its Maryland location. It has picked a reactor by French-based Areva that isn’t certified for U.S. use. Areva intends to submit a reactor-certification request to the NRC by year end and hopes to have approval in 2010. Tom Christopher, chief executive of Areva’s U.S. unit, said it will be challenging to have reactor certification and plant licensing occurring simultaneously.

October 15th is blog action day on the environment More nuclear energy will help reduce the number of active coal power plants. This will reduce air pollution which kills 30,000 people in the United States an average of 14 years sooner than otherwise.