U.S. Regulators Brace For Nuclear Power Growth


Federal regulators, girding for explosive growth in the nuclear power industry, say they are weeks away from an anticipated flood of license applications for new reactors not seen since the 1970s.

"There are a lot of challenges for new construction," said Bill Borchardt, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's newly created Office of New Reactors. "And a lot of challenges for the NRC."

The independent regulatory agency expects to receive new fast-tracked combined construction and operating license applications for as many as 29 reactors at 20 sites, most in the South, over the next three years.

The first could come as early as Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.

"We have never had to do this many reviews at one time in parallel with an office that has only existed for less than 12 months," Borchardt said Thursday at the NRC's reactor training center in Chattanooga.

"Nobody thinks this is going to be easy."

Borchardt has hired more than 400 inspectors, engineers and examiners to handle the load. Ultimately, the power companies will be billed for their time. The office is nearly as large as the NRC unit overseeing the country's existing 104 commercial reactor fleet.

Growing electricity demand, energy supply security concerns and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are driving a nuclear revival in this country after a three-decade chill. Improvements in nuclear operating experience and efficiency have also played a role, Borchardt said.

Some of the power companies expected to file soon for new reactors include the Tennessee Valley Authority, as part of the NuStart group for its Bellefonte site in Alabama; Duke Energy , for its Lee Station in South Carolina; NRG Energy , for its South Texas Project; Dominion Energy, for the North Anna site in Virginia; Southern , for its Vogtle plant in Georgia; and South Carolina Electric & Gas, for its Summer station.

Most want to begin construction in five to six years and be online by 2015 to 2020, Borchardt said.

Advanced Reactor Designs

All are looking to use advanced reactor designs, which the NRC is working to approve in advance in standardized form to hurry along the process.

Two of five most likely designs already have been certified by the NRC. The others are either under review or expected to be submitted by year's end.

The new reactors are expected to have significant safety improvements over current boiling-water and pressurized-water designs in today's U.S. reactors.

They will have multiple independent systems to cool reactor cores in an emergency, multiple backup power systems, digital control rooms and more passive systems to open and close valves automatically by gravity or water flow, to reduce human error.

The reactors also will have enhanced post-9/11 security features, including hardened concrete exteriors that can better withstand the shock of events such as an airplane strike.

And to keep reactors on the fast track, most will incorporate modular construction with large parts -- the reactor vessel, for instance -- made in other locations, such as Japan. Some large components already are being ordered, Borchardt said.

Using standardized design and modular construction "allows General Electric to (be able) to claim that they can construct from first concrete to reactor critical -- an entire power plant -- in approximately 36 months," NRC reactor technology instructor Richard DeVercelly said.

That's about how long it took to build two new reactors in Japan that use an advanced boiling-water design that the NRC has certified for U.S. power companies, he said.

By comparison, TVA took five years alone to rebuild and restart its oldest reactor at the Browns Ferry station in Alabama, which returned to service this year.

"It is pretty clear that the plants will be built more rapidly (and) are going to make extensive use of modular construction," Borchardt said. "One of the great lessons from the 1960s and 1970s is that you do a much better job if you can design them before you start building them. (That's true) whether you are building a house or anything else."