Faced with a rising tide of license applications for new nuclear facilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must maintain its standards if it is to continue to meet its mission of protecting public health, safety and the environment, according to Commissioner Peter B. Lyons.

“The nuclear industry recognizes that any possibility of construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. depends directly on continued public assurance of safe and secure operations of existing power reactors in operation today,” Lyons said at a recent CERAWeek 2008 event in Houston. “The NRC is a valuable contributor to that assurance.”

The “nuclear renaissance” has presented the NRC with a host of challenges, including a massive review process for the influx of combined construction and operating license (COL) applications filed in recent months (see NGI, Jan. 14).

In September NRG Energy Inc., San Antonio’s CPS Energy and South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Co. filed the first COL in 29 years, seeking NRC approval for two new nuclear units at the South Texas Project station. In October the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and NuStart Energy submitted a COL application for a new nuclear power plant to be located in Alabama. Last month the NRC said it would review the environmental portion of a COL application that UniStar Nuclear Energy submitted for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant near Lusby, MD, and accepted for review a COL application from Dominion Virginia Power for a new reactor at the North Anna site in central Virginia.

UniStar recently told the NRC it will submit another COL application late this year for a 1,600 MW advanced design nuclear reactor at Constellation Energy’s Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in upstate New York. Several advanced reactor design certification reviews are also in progress, Lyons said.

“In 2008 we are expecting up to 15 additional COL applications for up to 22 new reactors,” he said. “For budget purposes, we estimate that each design certification review will require roughly 160,000 hours over about 42 months. A COL application is initially expected to require approximately 88,000 hours over about 30 months of review and 12 months of public hearings. In addition, our current preliminary estimate for inspections during an anticipated four-year construction phase of a single reactor plant is 35,000 inspection hours. As you can see, the level of regulatory effort is substantial and, for the NRC, must not divert attention from the safe and secure operation of existing reactors.”

To achieve timely reviews of the multiple standardized COL applications, NRC staff is planning to implement a design-centered approach, based on the principle of “one issue, one review, one position” for multiple applications under parallel review.

“The benefits of a design-centered licensing review will be achieved only to the extent that COL applicants standardize their applications for a particular reactor design, and review schedules will be longer if industry does not follow this model,” Lyons said. “In addition, reactor vendors and COL applicants must submit applications that are complete and meet very high-quality technical standards. We will not compromise our standards to expedite approvals.”

Among the challenges facing the NRC is the growing need for regulatory bodies, as well as industry consensus standards organizations, to carefully coordinate to ensure both consistency and satisfaction of the standards in the face of the globalization of the nuclear supply chain and an unprecedented diversity of global sources for nuclear components, Lyons said.

“The NRC has previously identified counterfeit and deficient parts and continues to seek better ways of monitoring the increasing globalization of the nuclear supply chain through our international collaborations. Quality control issues in the 1970s contributed to halting several nuclear plants under construction. In today’s global manufacturing economy, global collaboration will be imperative to the nuclear industry.”

Another challenge facing the NRC is the issue of spent fuel and waste management. The commission has waited some time for the Department of Energy (DOE) to submit an application for the Yucca Mountain national nuclear waste disposal facility in Nevada.

Last year U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, reintroduced legislation that would allow DOE to “proceed expeditiously” in licensing and developing the much-delayed Yucca Mountain repository (see NGI, May 28, 2007). The Nuclear Waste Access to Yucca Act would authorize DOE to begin moving defense nuclear waste to an aboveground storage facility at the repository within the Nevada Test Site upon completion of an environmental impact statement, and civilian spent nuclear fuel following the issuances of a construction permit by the NRC. Moving spent nuclear fuel will also require a determination that there are no other recycling options available.

The initiative goes back to 2002, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a law that approved the site at Yucca Mountain for the nation’s permanent geological repository. Since that time, lawsuits and opposition to the plan have halted development.

“The issues related to spent fuel management have precipitated a lot of thinking about the advantages of recycling spent nuclear fuel. Potentially this could significantly reduce the volume and toxicity of waste placed in a repository. Additionally, it could significantly expand the amount of usable fuel that can be extracted from the earth. Finally, it could substantially enhance proliferation resistance over existing recycling technologies,” Lyons said. “But it will come only with a substantial investment in the necessary research to develop the commercially usable technologies that would be needed.”

A more near-term challenge for the NRC is the requirement of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 for DOE to develop a Next Generation Nuclear Plant — intended to demonstrate hydrogen production through high-temperature processes supported by an advanced gas-cooled reactor design — and for the NRC to license it for construction and operation.

“The NRC is working with DOE on developing a licensing framework to meet this unique licensing need,” Lyons said. “However, it has been many years since the NRC licensed a gas-cooled reactor and, combined with advancing materials science, this means that we must relearn and focus on the applicable science needed to perform our safety reviews.”

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