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Industry Executives Report Solid Progress on New Nuclear Plants

Aug. 29, 2013—Industry executives leading the development of the first reactors to go through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s new licensing process report solid progress on the reactors’ construction—and few difficulties so far with regulatory issues. They said the industry and the NRC are continuing to address the unique challenges of translating a certified reactor design into fully constructed facilities.

Industry and NRC staff briefed the commission Aug. 27 on the status of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors being built at Southern Co.’s Vogtle site in Georgia and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s Summer site. They also discussed the ongoing project to complete Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee and the development of a new facility to manufacture mixed oxide fuel, a joint project of the Shaw Group and AREVA.

The NRC’s new licensing process under 10 CFR Part 52 is “a significant improvement” over the old process, but there are areas for improvement, said Buzz Miller, president of nuclear development at Southern Nuclear Operating Co. and executive vice president of nuclear development at Georgia Power Co. “Chief among these areas is the development of final construction details within the context of the certified design.”

The Vogtle and Summer projects are proceeding under combined construction and operating licenses issued under Part 52 to build reactors according to a specific certified design. In the old process, the design for a nuclear plant evolved as construction proceeded and was approved only after construction was complete. The new approach brings NRC review and approval of the design up front, before construction begins. While it means the design gets a thorough and public safety review at the start, it also locks in details that sometimes prove problematic once the project reaches the construction stage.

“One of the issues we struggle with … is that probably not as strong a consideration [was given to] constructability of the plant early in the design and licensing process,” said Jeffrey Lyash, president of the power business unit of Chicago Bridge & Iron, which is building the Vogtle and Summer plants. 

Miller said licensees must continue to work with the commission and staff on mechanisms to more efficiently handle the kinds of changes that are inevitable in any construction project. At the same time, he said, they need to minimize “the resources expended on minor deviations from the certified design that have little or no safety significance.”

The two utilities involved with the Vogtle and Summer projects are working closely together as well as observing first-hand the construction of AP1000 reactors in China, said Jeff Archie, SCE&G’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. Construction of the Summer reactors is going well, and there is “a lot of excitement about our project and a lot of good dialogue and work with the NRC staff,” Archie said. While commercial operation is still a few years away, the company has started hiring for the new reactors, he said, including 24 candidates to begin operator training.

The NRC staff recently completed a self-assessment of its implementation of Part 52 and identified lessons learned (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Aug. 1). The industry executives agreed that the staff’s assessment is on target.

TVA is completing the Watts Bar 2 reactor under the NRC’s original licensing process (10 CFR Part 50), as it did with Watts Bar 1, and it intends the new plant to be essentially identical to its sister unit, said Mike Skaggs, senior vice president of nuclear construction at TVA. “Watts Bar 2 is approximately 80 percent complete and we’re in the final stages of completing construction on the systems,” Skaggs said. “We currently are meeting the targets for safety, quality, cost and schedule.”

Miller highlighted the economic and job-creation benefits of new nuclear plants. “For the local community, the economic value of the Vogtle project is massive,” he said. “Construction of the Vogtle units 3 and 4 is the largest job-producing project in Georgia.”