New Reactor Construction Experience Program — Learning from the Past

The NRC is currently reviewing several applications from the nuclear industry to build more than 20 new nuclear reactors. These new plants, so called Generation III+ reactors, include designs with an alphabet of acronyms. They include the Advanced Passive or AP-1000, the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, or ABWR, the Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor, or APWR, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, or ESBWR, and the Evolutionary Power Reactor, or EPR.

Construction of these reactors cannot begin unless and until the NRC completes its technical reviews and the license application is approved.

There are currently 104 operating reactors in the U.S. Many of them were constructed in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Both the industry and the NRC faced many challenges in building and licensing and regulating these reactors. One major challenge was ineffective control and management of the overall projects.

In 1984, at the direction of Congress, the NRC studied the causes of major quality-related problems in the construction of some nuclear power plants. At the conclusion of the study, the NRC published NUREG-1055, “Improving Quality and the Assurance of Quality in the Design and Construction of Nuclear Power Plants,” to document its findings and recommendations.

Some examples of the recommendations include: the industry should put higher standards on their own actions, work harder to identify how and why quality problems occurred, and to enlist the help of third-party auditors to identify issues objectively and early.

To improve NRC programs, the study suggested a stronger emphasis on team inspections and the role of resident inspectors, and better data and trending analysis to diagnose problems earlier in the process. In addition, the study recommended that higher attention and quality assurance measures should be placed on systems and structures that have the most impact on overall nuclear safety.

To make sure we’d learned the lessons from past construction projects, the NRC created the Construction Experience Program in 2007. It has grown from one to four staff in the past four years. Its purpose is to review and evaluate problems at domestic and international construction projects, and to propose ways to enhance NRC technical reviews and inspection procedures.

Since its inception, the program has evaluated more than 300 domestic and international operating and construction experience reports dating from the 1980s to present. As a result of these evaluations, the staff has published 10 information notices to share lessons learned and insights from the evaluations with internal and external NRC stakeholders and the public. These information notices raised the awareness of utilities about particular construction and operational experiences to ensure they did not reoccur.

Omid Tabatabai
Senior Reactors Systems Engineer