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Category Archives: New Reactors

Crossing the Finish Line at Watts Bar

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

Watts Bar Unit 2, the nation’s first new commercial nuclear unit in a generation, received its NRC operating license last October and is closing in on its first nuclear chain reaction. (Power production is still a ways off.) The NRC is still on the job as the staff transitions to operational inspection duties.

An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.

An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The agency’s Region II-based construction inspection staff, supplemented by headquarters staff, have booked more than 127,000 hours making sure the new unit has been built according to its design specifications. More than 350 agency inspectors and other staff have been involved in the inspection and project management effort, which geared up in earnest in 2008 when the Tennessee Valley Authority committed to completing the unit it had initially started building in 1973 and later suspended.

The Watts Bar plant, located about 50 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tenn., has a unique history. Unit 1, which also traces its roots to 1973, was the last U.S. plant to come on line when it was finally licensed in 1996 after a similarly lengthy construction hiatus.

When work resumed on Unit 2, the NRC recalled a handful of staffers who had been involved in inspecting work on the sister unit to ensure “knowledge transfer.”

“Our goal is to verify the design is accurate,” said James Baptist, who was a team leader for several years during Watts Bar 2 construction and has recently become chief of the Region II branch overseeing the transition from construction to operation. “We want to ensure Unit 2 looks and operates just like Unit 1. It greatly assists the effort when you have a working model right beside you.”

As is the case with most NRC inspection efforts, the corps of construction resident inspectors led the way, reporting to the site daily and amassing a big percentage of those 127,000 hours.

“Everything came through the residents in terms of what was going on at the site,” said Chris Even, who recently transitioned from senior construction project manager to senior project inspector in the new branch overseeing the transition. “We always relied on the residents for knowing exactly what was going on.”

The workload was huge from the beginning, with more than 550 construction inspection items to be inspected and closed. And Baptist noted that even though the plant was designed in the 1970s, it’s built to today’s standards.

“They purposely built Unit 2 to be a mirror image of Unit 1 while including all the updated safety enhancements that have accrued over the last 25 or 30 years,” he said.

For example, Watts Bar is the first plant in the nation to comply with all the NRC’s post- Fukushima upgrades as well as the newest cybersecurity requirements.

One might think that with the license issued and the plant about to start up that the NRC inspection effort would be winding down. Baptist said that is not the case.

“We still have our foot on the gas,” he said.

Just as the NRC inspectors were dedicated to make sure Watts Bar Unit 2 was constructed and tested according to the design and NRC regulatory requirements, they will continue to maintain that vigilance as the plant begins and continues to operate.

 

 

Plainly Telling the Public about Our Environmental Reviews

Tomeka Terry, Project Manager
Office of New Reactors

The NRC feels it’s important to write our documents so that all readers can understand them. We’ve previously discussed writing in plain English and acronym use. The agency’s made extra effort to write plainly in its documents most read by the public, and to reduce the use of acronyms when we can.

We use many tools to inform the public about who we are and what we do. Our work is technical and some documents must meet legal standards, but we still want people to understand as much as possible. So we went a step further—creating a new tool to improve understanding and reduce reading effort.

Environmental impact statements help the NRC decide whether to approve projects, such as licensing the building and operating of a nuclear power plant. Each environmental impact statement for a new reactor will now include a “Reader’s Guide” with a simple, short overview of the statement. The Reader’s Guide summarizes the project’s potential environmental impacts. It also describes alternatives and ways to reduce the effects the project would have on the environment.

We’ve also included an overview of the NRC’s new reactor licensing process and opportunities for public participation in the Reader’s Guide.

The brochure format makes understanding the environmental impact statement easier. Most NRC environmental impact statements average 1500 pages, while the Reader’s Guide gives an overview in about 40 pages.

The Reader’s Guide also helps us conserve resources. When we send our documents to the public, we can now print a short document and include the full environmental impact statement on an enclosed CD.

Two recent Reader’s Guides cover a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed new reactor in Pennsylvania and a final environmental impact statement for a site in New Jersey.

Counting the Costs on Advanced Reactor Reviews

Anna Bradford, Chief
Advanced Reactors and Policy Branch
Office of New Reactors

We’re continuing to examine topics from the recent two-day public workshop we jointly hosted with the Department of Energy regarding non-light water reactor designs. One topic getting a lot of attention is the possible costs for NRC reviews of applications for these designs.

Last month’s workshop included presentations on the NRC’s experience licensing non-light water designs, as well as discussions of proposed advanced reactor designs.

Last month’s workshop included presentations on the NRC’s experience licensing non-light water designs, as well as discussions of proposed advanced reactor designs.

For instance, some people interpreted a DOE presentation on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant project as saying it costs $800 million to receive a final certification or license from the NRC. The bulk of that $800 million, however, falls outside of NRC fees and would be made up of the designer’s costs to develop and test its design to ensure that it works as planned.

In other words, the designer does not pay the NRC $800 million to review a reactor design. Looking at recent reviews of large light-water reactors, we see designers spent approximately $50 – $75 million for NRC fees to certify their designs.

A recent Government Accountability Office assessment, “Nuclear Reactors: Status and Challenges in Development and Deployment of New Commercial Concepts” says costs can be “…up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design.” A different portion of the GAO report, however, pointed out most of these costs aren’t attributable to the NRC review. The largest part of the price tag would be research, development, and design work to develop and test a new reactor design.

We can also examine information from the public workshop on design development costs versus NRC review costs for the developer of a new small modular reactor design. The company said that of approximately $300 million in design investment to date, only $4 million of that amount (or slightly more than 1 percent) is from NRC fees for several years of pre-application interactions with the agency.

Here’s something to keep in mind: NRC review costs depend on the quality and maturity of the applicant’s information. The NRC always aims to efficiently and effectively review designs. Incomplete or inadequate information will very likely increase costs, however, since the NRC will spend more time and effort getting the data necessary to determine whether the reactor could operate safely and securely.

Everyone benefits from a common understanding of NRC costs as we discuss the next generation of reactor designs. The NRC’s website has more information on how the agency is approaching advanced and small modular reactor designs.

The Inspection Beat Goes on at Watts Bar Unit 2

William Jones
Director of the Division of Construction Projects
Region II

An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff install the reactor pressure vessel inside the containment building at Watts Bar Unit 2.

An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff perform construction activities at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The NRC has issued an operating license to the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in Tennessee, bringing the U.S. to 100 commercial reactors. The plant’s owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority, had restarted construction of the incomplete reactor in 2007 and updated its application for Unit 2’s license in 2009.

Since 2007, NRC inspectors have devoted more than 200,000 hours to supporting the agency’s decision that Unit 2 qualifies for a license. There’s more to do, however, before Unit 2 starts splitting atoms and generating electricity, and the NRC’s going to keep an eye on all of that.

The NRC’s two permanent Resident Inspectors at Watts Bar have another full-time resident inspector and additional regional inspectors on site during this period. The inspectors and NRC management follow a well-defined process to monitor a plant as it starts up for the first time.  One of the most obvious steps we’ll monitor is when TVA loads the uranium fuel into the Unit 2 reactor.

Once Unit 2 is ready for the initial reactor startup, the NRC staff will verify TVA has properly calibrated the instruments that monitor the chain reaction even at the lowest sustainable level. The plant operators must also show they can manually shut off the chain reaction. When all those steps are done, the NRC inspectors will watch the operators’ actions as they let Unit 2 start splitting a very small number of atoms.

The next step involves testing the reactor at very low power levels. The chain reaction is affected by changes in coolant water temperature and chemicals in the water. The NRC inspectors will examine the low-power tests to ensure the plant has properly measured changes in the reaction.

As each of these tests is passed, Unit 2 will increase power in small steps and examine the reactor’s response to abnormal events. For instance, if the plant’s turbine stops running the reactor’s heat has lost its normal outlet, so the reactor must shut down. The reactor must also respond properly to shutdown commands from alternate control stations and a simulated loss of power from the electric grid.

If TVA successfully completes all of these steps, Unit 2 will be ready to add about 1,100 megawatts to the electric grid in the Southeast. During this entire process, the NRC’s inspectors will also be gathering and analyzing the information needed to gauge Unit 2’s safety performance under the agency’s Reactor Oversight Process. This process will guide NRC actions at Unit 2 as long as the plant continues to operate.

Counting the Steps to a Final Watts Bar Unit 2 Decision

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The NRC’s Commissioners have given the staff the authority to issue the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a full-power operating license for Unit 2 at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant site in Tennessee. That permission has some strings attached, however, so we’re still months away from our final licensing decision.

wattsbarconstructionsriIf TVA is issued the license, Watts Bar 2 will be the first U.S. nuclear power plant to start operating since 1996, when Watts Bar 1 came online. TVA still has to satisfy the staff that several regulatory requirements for safe operation of Unit 2 have been met. We’re finishing up the licensing and inspection activities we need to conclude TVA is ready to load fuel and operate the reactor, which is near Spring City, Tenn.

We have to be satisfied not only that Unit 2 is safe to operate, but also that TVA can safely transition to operating two reactors at the site. We’re completing a few licensing actions needed to support dual-unit operation at Watts Bar. TVA also has to pass our remaining operational readiness inspections.

Other upcoming milestones include getting a recommendation from the NRC’s Region II Administrator, who has oversight responsibility for all inspections performed at Watts Bar 2. We also need to issue a couple supplements to the reactor’s Safety Evaluation Report.

TVA’s progress in completing construction and testing of Watts Bar 2 will directly influence our completion of the milestones. We may be able to make a licensing decision later this year. TVA has said repeatedly, however, that the actual operating license date depends on several factors and could shift as the final months’ work is completed. While we take TVA’s schedule into consideration for planning our licensing and inspection work, our priority is always on ensuring safety.

If we conclude Unit 2 is safe and ready to receive a license, TVA will still have to successfully complete several tests, including running the reactor at gradually increasing power levels, before the reactor can provide electricity to the grid. The NRC website has more information on the past few years of Watts Bar Unit 2’s licensing and inspection activities.

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