Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves first licences for nuclear power reactors in 34 years
By William Freebairn in Washington, DC
March 2, 2012 - The NRC’s approval February 9 of licenses for Southern Co.’s planned two nuclear units was welcomed
by the industry and its allies, but even the strongest supporters said the agency’s decision will not overcome economic obstacles to the addition of more than four or five
nuclear units this decade.
NRC commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the licenses -- the first licenses to build nuclear power reactors in the US since 1978 -- at Southern’s two-unit Vogtle plant in Georgia, with Chairman Gregory Jaczko casting the sole dissenting vote.
Jaczko said he believed a condition should have been added requiring Southern to implement new regulatory requirements developed as a result of the Fukushima nuclear
accident before the new units could operate. “I can’t support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened,” he said immediately after his vote.
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The majority of commissioners wrote in the order issued after the vote that they believe the agency’s “rigorous, well
established processes rather than a loosely-defined license
condition” is the best way to address the issue.
The vote directs NRC staff to issue the combined
construction permit-operating licenses, or COLs, which
could take several days. In a February 9 statement, the
NRC said the staff is expected to issue the licenses within
10 business days.
Following the two Westinghouse AP1000 units at
Vogtle and two at South Carolina Electric & Gas’ singleunit
Summer station, plus a unit being completed by
the Tennessee Valley Authority, low natural gas prices
make it unlikely that additional nuclear generation will
be added before 2020, Marvin Fertel, president of the
Nuclear Energy Institute, said February 9 during a briefing
for financial analysts in New York.
Approval of the licenses will boost the industry, but
the combination of low US natural gas prices and a lack
of legislation limiting carbon emissions will prevent
a full-fledged nuclear revival, Westinghouse CEO Aris
Candris said at the briefing.
“Something as momentous as the first COL in 34 years
is bound to have some influence,” he said.”But the burst of
new [nuclear] build is going to be delayed a certain number
of years,” he said.
Eventually, natural gas prices can be expected to rise, he
said, spurring demand.
Upon receipt of the COLs, Southern has said it will
begin “full construction” of two 1,100-MW Westinghouse
AP1000s at Vogtle. Vogtle-3, the first new unit, is expected
to enter service in 2016 and Vogtle-4 will follow a year later,
Southern has said.
NRC would have to conclude all required inspections,
tests, analyses and acceptance criteria are met before fuel can
be loaded and operation can begin.
NRC is reviewing 12 applications for COLs to build
and operate a total of 20 power reactors. Reviews of six
other applications for COLs were suspended at the applicants’
The next licenses to be approved are expected to be those
for SCEG’s expansion of its Summer plant.
NRC held a hearing on the application two weeks
after the similar session for Vogtle, and commissioners
could approve the Summer COLs on February 22,
Stephen Byrne, SCE&G’s chief operating officer, said in
an interview February 9.
Southern Nuclear Operating Co., a Southern subsidiary,
applied for the Vogtle licenses in 2008 and will oversee
construction of the units and operate them for the
The new units will be owned by Georgia Power
(45.7%), MEAG Power (22.7%), Oglethorpe Power (30%)
and the city of Dalton, Georgia (1.6%).
Southern Chairman and CEO Thomas Fanning said in
a news conference February 9 that the total project cost
to Southern and its partners is $14 billion, and they have
already spent more than $4 billion, Fanning said.
“The project is on track, and our targets related to cost
and schedule are achievable,” Fanning said in a statement.
Receipt of the COLs will trigger an expansion of the
workforce at the Vogtle site from 2,000 today to as many as
5,000 between 2013 and 2014, Fanning said.
Under the NRC licensing process, work on roads, excavation
and incidental and temporary facilities can be started
by license applicants without prior agency approval. This
has included the installation of circulating water piping and
the construction of a module assembly building.
Because the Vogtle project had received a limited work
authorization, it was able to go beyond those activities,
defined by NRC as pre-construction, and perform some safety-
related work. That authorization allowed the backfill of
the construction excavation and the placement of a waterproof
With the COLs in hand, Southern plans to begin laying steel
reinforcing bar for the construction of the nuclear island foundation,
the company said. Work on the turbine building foundation
will also be carried out immediately, the company said.
Later this year, work will include the pouring of concrete
for the nuclear island foundation, also knows as “first nuclear
concrete.” In the nuclear industry, this is considered the
start of full-scale construction on a nuclear power unit.
First nuclear concrete could be poured in three to five
months, said Jeffrey Merrifield, senior vice president of The
Shaw Group, which with Westinghouse is the contractor to
build both the Vogtle and Summer units.
“This is probably one of the most significant days for the
nuclear industry in the last 30 years,” he said February 9 in
Next page: Other US NRC license applications