The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a radical new reactor design on Thursday, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction on projects in South Carolina and Georgia.
The decision, a milestone in the much-delayed revival of plant construction sought by the nuclear industry, involves the Westinghouse AP1000, a 1,154 Megawatt reactor with a so-called advanced passive design. It relies more heavily on forces like gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves and operator actions than other models do, in theory diminishing the probability of an accident.
Two reactors are planned for the Southern Company’s plant near Augusta, Ga., and another two at the Summer plant of South Carolina Electric and Gas in Fairfield County, S.C. In an unusual step, the commission waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant. The decision also moves the industry toward the first test of a streamlined procedure in which the commission will issue a combined construction and operating license. Up to now reactors had to obtain a construction license and then undergo a long wait for an operating license, resulting in expensive delays in starting up reactors that had essentially been completed.
Many of today’s operating reactors were one of a kind. Under the new system, the utility will use a standard design preapproved by the commission, like the one endorsed on Thursday. The only remaining issue will be whether the utility was faithful to the authorized design. Southern and South Carolina Electric and Gas could get combined licenses soon. The new licensing procedure is intended to cut costs, which ran so high in the last round of construction, in the 1970s and 1980s, that many projects were abandoned half-built.
In the emerging round of construction, Southern and South Carolina Electric and their partners have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars digging foundations for the projects. They have also brought in cooling water and taken other early steps that do not require approval of the reactor design.
In a statement welcoming the commission’s decision, Westinghouse said that about 3,000 high-paying construction jobs would be created at each plant site and that workers manufacturing components at factories around the country would benefit as well. Of the 104 operating power reactors in the United States, the youngest entered service in 1996.
The four reactors to be built are the only survivors in what had been envisioned as a bigger field of new plants that narrowed over the last three years as investors ran into financial and other obstacles. In fact, it is not clear whether ground will be broken on any additional reactors soon; industry experts say the biggest obstacle is that the price of natural gas remains quite low, making it difficult to produce electricity from a reactor at a price competitive with electricity from a gas-burning plant. Congress has approved $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors and there is considerable support for even more, but it is not clear that borrowers will emerge.
Among other design improvements, the Westinghouse AP1000 is supposed to shut down safely in the event of a loss of all electrical power, which is what befell the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami in March. Westinghouse says that a combination of automatic systems and design features would keep the reactor safe for three days without human intervention and that its core could be kept from melting indefinitely with only minimal operator effort.
The regulatory commission approved an earlier version of the AP1000 in 2006, but the design was later ruled out for American utilities when the agency adopted a rule in 2008 requiring newly constructed reactors to be able to withstand the impact of a crashing aircraft. China is in advanced stages of constructing four units of an earlier version of the AP1000. The first unit is scheduled to go online in 2013, about three years before the first one would begin operating in the United States. Westinghouse predicts that certification of the design by the regulatory commission will make it easier for the company to market the model around the world.
Opponents of the reactor, among them the North Carolina group NC Warn, have argued that no new designs should be certified until the lessons of the Fukushima accident have been fully absorbed. And Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and others have drawn attention to concerns raised by an engineer at the commission that a building surrounding the reactor containment might fail under some circumstances. But the chairman of the commission, Gregory B. Jaczko, said that all of the panel’s safety concerns had been fully addressed.
“The design provides enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive or other innovative safety and security functions, and also has been assessed to ensure it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials,” he said in a statement.
The decision is a rare instance of agreement among the commissioners, who have split this year over policy and management issues. Last week four of them testified before Congress that Dr. Jaczko had limited the flow of information to them and tried to cut them out of important decisions.
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