Nuclear Plant License Renewals

There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the United States. Many of these plants have been operating safely for over 40 years. Nuclear plants are initially licensed to operate for 40 years as long as they are safe. But operating experience has shown that theconservatisms incorporated into their designs combined with the various upgrades that have been implemented over the decades has lent operating reactors a particular ruggedness, which has prompted many plants to apply for 20 year license extensions.

The popularity of license renewal applications has prompted anti-nuclear politicians and activists to assert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply “rubber stamps” these approvals. I recently read a letter from a member of the public that claimed existing nuclear plants are “being granted approval to continue operation with little or no upgrade to their infrastructure.” These assertions are simply false.

On the contrary, nuclear plant operators seeking license extensions are required to comply with the conditions and technical specification of the original license (unless they seek to amend their technical specifications as well); and to demonstrate they have designed a robust aging management program for the facility, which includes replacing aging equipment and implementing enhanced inservice inspection and maintenance programs for plant equipment important to safety.

For instance, before applying for a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, Tennessee Valley Authority replaced all four steam generators in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 at Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station. These replacement steam generators feature technologically superior steam generator tubing alloy material with improved corrosion and wear resistance properties. TVA performed this replacement (to the tune of $360 million) in order to ensure the continued safety of the workforce and public.

Other operating plants are performing similar plant upgrades to assure the facility can operate safely for the duration of the operating license extension. The NRC does not simply “rubber stamp” these extensions as some people suggest. The regulators require enhanced inspection and maintenance programs based on the facility’s operating history; and have no qualms about requiring more than what a licensee suggests.

Even after the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has determined that renewing a license will not endanger the environment or public, the extension is not guaranteed. Some license renewal applicants must survive a public evidentiary hearing, during which intervenors – read: anti-nuclear organizations – can attempt to prove extending the plant operating license poses a danger to the public.

You can learn more about nuclear plant licensing and find a list of the current applications for license extension at the NRC website: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/licensing/renewal/applications.html

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Modern Age Nuclear Construction

The nuclear industry has changed. Whereas, in the 1960’s and 1970’s nuclear plant designers built with a “customization to the customer” approach, construction today is based on a “tweaked standard design” approach. Let me explain.

There are but a few basic nuclear steam supply systems. The most utilized versions in the United States are based on a “light water” design, where purified water flows over fuel assemblies in a reactor vessel. Of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in the United States, there are 69 pressurized water reactors (where water in the core never boils) and 35 boiling water reactors (where water in the core boils). But these two designs are hardly the tip of the iceberg of  possible nuclear utilization designs.

Prior to 1986, a utility or owner of a proposed plant developed a basic reactor design in consult with a design firm with unique power characteristics and safety systems and submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, or Atomic Energy Commission, as the regulator was called prior to 1974) to prove its unique plant would not endanger public health and safety. Once a construction permit was issued, each plant was designed in detail as it was built, and the design changed as the plant was constructed in reaction to regulatory order or technological advancement. Regulator-mandated improvements and design enhancements and anti-nuclear intervenors bogged down the licensing and construction process, which led to cost overruns to the tune of billions, prompting utilities to reconsider the financial tenability of their investment. Several projects were scrapped mid construction. Bellefonte 1 & 2 and Perry 2 stand like paperweights beneath the fallout of nuclear agnst, while Marble Hill and Satsop are only failed memories now.

Today’s regulatory regime is different. Designs have been standardized to allow regulatory review of one design, which may then be built on any site whose characteristics are within the design limits. A site is deemed acceptable when its site specific characteristics such as seismicity, flood potential, maximum and minimum ambient temperature, and frequency and severity of inclement weather events and etcetera are proven to be less severe than the characteristics used to test or analyze a certified design. Non-standard portions of the design, which depend on site layout, foundation properties, and heat sink characteristics, are finalized by each utility separately in their Combined License Application.

Licensing a certified design limits the financial risk relatively small utilities incur due to regulatory changes or public intervenors. The public is still allowed the opportunity to challenge the technical merit design certifications, environmental permits, and operating licenses. But the public vetting process occurs once and relatively early in the process, limiting possible impacts to construction.

The current combined licensing regime should not imply that design changes would not be made to improve safety or to fix any technical issues incurred in present designs. Emergent issues, solutions thereof, and any other design changes, are evaluated with regard to their potential impact on the safety and security of the workforce and the public, and licensing amendment requests are made as necessary to meet the notification criteria prescribed in the design certification for each particular design in Part 52 to Title 10 Code of Federal Regulations.

The future of nuclear is bright with promise. Standard design certifications and the streamlined combined licensing process will improve financial certainty for utilities seeking to invest in clean, reliable nuclear energy while preserving the confidence of public safety ensured via regulatory oversight.

New U.S. Nuclear Plants – Сколько Лет, Сколько Зин?

Here are a few historical facts to put this accomplishment in perspective.

It’s been a good few months for the nuclear industry in the United States. In December, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission published the final design certification rule for the AP1000 Pressurized Water Reactor in the Federal Register. And recently, the NRC approved the issue of a combined construction and operating license to Southern Company for two AP1000 reactors to be built on the Vogtle site that has been in preparation for years. The combined license for Vogtle is the first new construction license issued by the NRC in 34 years.

34 YEARS!!!

Now, I myself cannot even remember 34 years ago. I was but an eating, crying, sleeping, pooping babe back when the last new nuclear construction license was issued. Which made me wonder, what else was happening the last time NRC green lighted a nuclear construction project? Here are a few historical facts to put this accomplishment in perspective.

  • In 1978 Jimmy Carter was president. The same year, Carter witnessed the signing of the Camp David Accord that eventually led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
  • Almost every family in American had a TV by 1978. But U.S. politics lagged way behind technology, as usual. While British Parliament sessions began regular radio broadcasts in ’78, the United States Senate just managed to broadcast its first session over the radio waves.
  • In 1978, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was 63 cents, a stamp cost 15 cents and the Dow Jones was in the 800 range. (Even in the current recession, the Dow is almost 13,000!) 1978 was also the year the Susan B. Anthony coin was first minted.
  • In 1978, Volkswagen stopped making the Beetle. They tried to bring it back. But we all know how that went… (So much for the Beetle renaissance!)
  • In 1978, the first test tube baby was born, and the first ever mobile phone system was introduced.
  • In 1978, the Denver Broncos played the Dallas Cowboys in Denver’s first ever Super Bowl. The Broncos wanted to go to Disneyland. The Cowboys took them to school.

Now please enjoy some sexy nuclear pics!