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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’ request.

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.

‘On track’

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 owners.

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 membrane.

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 an interview.

Next page: Other US NRC license applications

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