US nuclear projects face construction challenges: industry

Washington (Platts)--27Aug2013/549 pm EDT/2149 GMT


New US nuclear reactor construction has encountered obstacles because of a new licensing process and the lack of experience of some suppliers, especially of commodity goods, utility representatives told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during a briefing Tuesday.

Improvements on quality assurance and compliance with licensing requirements are being made, the executives said.

Key components worldwide have been made successfully and according to nuclear quality requirements, said Joseph Miller, executive vice president for nuclear development at Georgia Power. Georgia Power, with three partners, is building two new 1,100-MW nuclear units at its existing Vogtle generating station.

With some components -- especially those standardized "commodity" items like reinforcing bar, which is used in non-nuclear applications as well -- the additional nuclear quality requirements were a problem for some manufacturers, he said. "The situation improves every day," Miller said.

There are more quality checks for the larger components than there are for commodities, where taking samples during production is the typical approach to quality oversight, said Jeff Archie, chief nuclear officer for South Carolina Electric & Gas. SCE&G, with partner Santee Cooper, is building two new units of the same design at the site of an existing reactor.

The lack of nuclear plant construction in the US during the past several decades has made it more difficult to locate suppliers who have the strict quality assurance programs that NRC requires, said Jeffrey Lyash, president of the power plant business unit for Chicago Bridge & Iron. CB&I, with reactor vendor Westinghouse, is the contractor for SCE&G's Summer and Georgia Power's Vogtle nuclear plant expansion projects.

"The suppliers really struggled understanding the exact nature of what we happened, how to stand up [nuclear quality assurance] programs ... getting suppliers up the learning curve on what was expected in terms of quality and how that process had to work was quite difficult," Lyash said.

Instead of being able to choose from a variety of qualified vendors, CB&I and Westinghouse had to place their own employees in a position to monitor supplier compliance, he said.

"The supply chain has come quite a long way" overall, Lyash said. Some companies have successfully "resurrected" nuclear-grade quality assurance programs that had lapsed when nuclear projects waned in the 1980s, he said.

But the expected volume of nuclear plant work over the coming years is not sufficient to attract large numbers of suppliers to restore such programs, which require a significant investment.

The development of final construction drawings that meet the requirements of the design NRC certified is one of the chief areas where licensing problems have emerged, Miller said.

While licensees and NRC have worked well together to handle changes in the construction plans that have developed, there are opportunities to improve the way in which such changes are processed, Miller said. Licensees and the agency must develop ways to "minimize the resources expended on minor deviations from the certified design that have little or no safety significance," Miller said.

NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis said meeting the requirements of the NRC-certified reactor design is absolute and not dependent on safety significance.

SCE&G's Archie said the licensees understand that compliance with the approved design is required.

NRC has stepped up inspections of suppliers to the US nuclear projects as they have proceeded, both in the US and internationally, said Laura Dudes, director of the division of construction inspection at the agency. Inspectors have identified problems with construction methods and drawings that have resulted in modifications by the utilities, said Joel Munday, director of NRC's division of construction projects for the southeast region.

--William Freebairn, william.freebairn@platts.com --Edited by Valarie Jackson, valarie.jackson@platts.com




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