Fact Sheets

Licensing New Nuclear Power Plants

This fact sheet describes the new reactor licensing process that was put into place by the NRC in 10 CFR Part 52 that was strengthened and affirmed by Congress as part of the 1992 Energy Policy Act. Also covered are incentives included in the 2005 Energy Policy Act designed to spur the construction of new nuclear power plants.

May 2013
Key Facts
  • The process of licensing and building a nuclear energy facility is as complex as the technology, but the basic steps are straightforward: select a design, obtain a combined construction and operating license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, build the facility under NRC oversight and begin commercial operation. The NRC established this process in 1992, providing numerous opportunities for public participation. It is far more efficient than the old process.
  • Current operating reactors were licensed when both the technology and the regulations were in a formative stage. The NRC issued a construction permit based on a preliminary design. The next steps were to build, license and operate the facility. Safety issues were not fully resolved until the end of the licensing process.
  • Under the new process, a facility is licensed before it is built—not afterward. This approach ensures that safety issues are addressed at the beginning and that the public has greater opportunity to be involved. When construction starts, the NRC monitors the project closely. Once the agency verifies that the completed plant is in accordance with the license, the owner can begin startup testing and commercial operation.
How Today’s Licensing Process Works
  1. A company that is considering construction of a nuclear energy plant first chooses a site and a reactor design, either separately or together. If the company has enough lead time before it needs to build new generating capacity, the company may apply to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an early site permit (ESP) and “bank” the site for future use. The NRC provides an opportunity for a public hearing on ESP applications. If advance site selection is not feasible, the company can designate a site in connection with its application for a combined construction and operating license (COL).
  2. The company selects a reactor design—typically a design certified by the NRC or one undergoing certification review. During the certification process, the NRC provides opportunities for public comment on reactor design safety issues. Successful completion of NRC certification designates that the reactor is safe for operation.
  3. The company develops a COL application, which takes about two years. Absent an early site permit, the application will include both safety and environmental information. The application is submitted to the NRC.
  4. NRC review of the COL application is estimated to take three years. Before making a decision on the application, the NRC provides an opportunity for a public hearing on COL-related issues. When the NRC is satisfied that all issues have been resolved, the agency issues a COL.
  5. The NRC staff monitors construction through its inspection program and uses pre-specified inspections, tests, analyses and acceptance criteria to determine if the completed plant conforms to the approved design. Construction will take about four years. At least 180 days before uranium fuel is loaded into the reactor, the NRC provides notice of the intended plant operation in the Federal Register.
  6. The NRC provides an opportunity for an additional public hearing on whether the plant, as constructed, complies (or will comply) with the NRC’s acceptance criteria defined in the license. Requests for a hearing at this late stage must show that the NRC’s acceptance criteria either have not been or will not be met. Requests also must specify how this would compromise public safety.
  7. The electric company performs startup testing of the new reactor systems and equipment. With satisfactory completion of this process, the plant is fully operational.

See a graphic of the process.