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Taking a Long-Term View on New Reactor Licenses

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Since 2012, the NRC has licensed 11 new reactors in the United States. The first four of those are under construction, two in Georgia and two in South Carolina.

The other seven? Their licenses are ready to go whenever the companies involved choose to start building them, and here’s why.

These new reactors are authorized through the NRC’s Combined License process. Under this approach the license includes permission to both build a reactor and operate it later, as long as a detailed list of completion requirements are met.

A Combined License includes the same 40-year operating period as the licenses for today’s reactors. Those 40 years start when the NRC concludes the reactor has been built according to its license and can operate safely. The construction portion, on the other hand, is set up without a definitive expiration date.

We base our permission to build the reactor on our review of technical and environmental information the applicant provided. Issuing a license means we found all that information acceptable.

Let’s imagine Company X receives a Combined License and waits 10 years before deciding to start construction. If the original information is still valid, the project could get underway. Most categories of information won’t change in that time. The license includes provisions where the company must account for new information when it decides to start construction.

All of this means that companies with a Combined License can therefore take additional time to consider those issues affecting the business decision to construct or not that fall outside the NRC’s jurisdiction. For example, a state’s utility agencies can create or revise policies on how the state obtains and pays for electricity. Changes in interest rates, prices for other electricity sources and even the makeup of regional electricity markets can affect the company’s overall business case.

Once a company concludes conditions are right for using a Combined License, the utility will give the NRC advance notice of its intent to start construction. The NRC will inspect construction activities and otherwise ensure the company meets relevant requirements for protecting the public.

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.

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.

Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Watts Bar Special Projects Branch
 

Unit 1 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., has a claim to fame as the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century. Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority aspires to have its sister reactor (Watts Bar Unit 2) make its own historic claim.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

If the NRC concludes that the reactor is safe to operate and approves its operating license next year, Watts Bar Unit 2 could become the first new commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in the 21st century.

To understand a little of the history of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, let’s rewind to a time when Schoolhouse Rock premiered and the first mobile phone call was made in New York City — a time predating the NRC. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlighted construction of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 under the “two-step licensing process,” where construction permits and operating licenses were issued separately.

In 1985, construction quality issues at its plants caused TVA to stop work at both Watts Bar Units. Eventually, TVA resolved the issues and completed construction of Unit 1, and the NRC issued its operating license in 1996.

Fast-forward to more recent activities. TVA decided in 2007 to reboot the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction and licensing process. They submitted an update to their original license application to the NRC in 2009.

Other recent applicants have elected to use the combined license application process, where we issue a single license to both construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. However, because of the unique history of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA chose to continue under the two-step licensing process. So, NRC staff developed a regulatory framework and established a licensing approach tailored specifically to the project.

We updated our construction inspection program associated with the two-step licensing process to provide guidance that reflects current NRC practices. For example, the NRC staff identified areas for further inspection at Unit 2 by screening applicable communications, allegations and other open items in the review.

The NRC staff also developed inspection guidance specific to TVA’s refurbishment program, which replaces or refurbishes systems and components at Watts Bar Unit 2. TVA’s resolution of key safety issues and the continued progress of construction inspection activities drive our review schedule.

If the operating license is issued next year, the NRC’s job doesn’t just end. We’d continue to inspect start-up testing required for power ascension and to oversee that Unit 2 transitions into the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process before it can begin producing commercial power.

And, of course, the Resident Inspectors, the agency’s eyes and ears at the plant, would continue to carry out day-to-day inspection work to ensure safety and security is monitored and inspected during licensing and throughout the transition to commercial operation.

For more information about the Watts Bar Unit 2 project, visit the NRC’s website. There will be a Commission briefing Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. on the license application review. You get details about the briefing from the meeting notice. We’ll also do a live webcast.

Construction Oversight Pilot Builds on Agency’s Longstanding Reactor Oversight Process

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer, Region II
 

The NRC is piloting a new oversight process for nuclear units under construction that is reminiscent of the old riddle, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”chickenegg

Obviously, the Reactor Oversight Process, or ROP, has been in effect for years. The NRC staff recently developed a Reactor Oversight Process for construction, known as cROP, designed to inform oversight of the ongoing work at Southern Nuclear Co.’s two new units at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga., and SCE&G’s two new units at V.C. Summer near Columbia, S.C.

The new process uses numerous features of the original ROP, including the inspection program, assessment process and enforcement policy. But the construction ROP has its own Action Matrix and employs a construction significance determination process to assess the importance of inspection findings.

Senior officials in the Office of New Reactors, or NRO, held public meetings near both sites this month to explain the program and gather public comments on possible revisions to improve it. Another public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6 at NRC headquarters to evaluate the pilot, with the goal to report to the Commission by the end of April.

The inspection program is a joint effort of Region II and NRO. Three construction resident inspectors are at each site, supplemented by regional specialists in various disciplines ranging from welding to concrete. Inspectors from headquarters monitor and review the performance of suppliers who ship safety-related components to the sites.

The NRC estimates that the agency’s inspectors will perform some 30,000 hours of inspections for each new unit before the process ends. Specifically, the inspection regimen requires the licensees to verify they have met 875 different ITAAC, or Inspections, Tests, Analyses and Acceptance Criteria. This comprehensive oversight program means any unit that is built would be constructed according to all applicable NRC regulations.

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