U.S. nuclear power update: A 2012 overture?

The first new operating license in 34 years was approved in early February 2012 by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for two reactors at Southern Nuclear Operating Co.’s Vogtle power plant located near Augusta, Ga. Other license approvals are pending. The industry is at a crossroad with positive and negative developments. Link to photos, videos.


Any metaphoric connection between P. I. Tchaikovsky’s triumphant orchestral composition “1812 Overture” and the 2012 state of the U.S. nuclear power industry is limited to just a curious, coincidental pair of dates. Nevertheless, a “2012 overture” of sorts is on hand for potentially positive nuclear power developments in the U.S. Recent approval of the first new license to build a U.S. nuclear power plant in 34 years is one step in that direction. 

Construction of Vogtle unit 3 turbine building foundation basement continues in this March 5 image. Courtesy: Southern Company.

At the same time, not everything is meshing. The mixed legacy of nuclear power, along with a long hiatus of progress, will likely reflect on its future. See “American Idle”—Nuclear Power, Sept. 2010 CE, for a background summary of industry successes and problems (Ref. 1, online). Still, 2012 represents a major crossroad for the industry.

On Feb. 9, 2012, the NRC approved a “new era” combined operating license (COL)—which is a construction permit and operating license in one—for the first of two reactors at Southern Nuclear Operating Co.’s power plant located in east-central Georgia, near Augusta. (Southern Co. heads a consortium of utilities operating in the region.)

The new construction is on the site of the company’s two-unit Alvin W. Vogtle electric generating plant. Westinghouse Electric Co. (a unit of Toshiba Corp.) is the supplier of the two AP1000 pressurized-water reactors (PWRs), each with 1,100 megawatt (MW) net output. The reactors represent “advanced Generation III+” design. Commercial operation of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 is expected in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

A number of new nuclear plant applications are being processed but approval has slowed due to renewed safety concerns and economic and political issues. Southern Co.’s license approval timing was only slightly affected. Approval was not unanimous. Dissenter in the 4-1 vote was NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Response to safety and reliability concerns is key to approval of any new reactor design. AP1000’s reliability enhancements include various passive safety systems that do not require operator actions to mitigate design-basis accidents, according to Westinghouse. Gravity, natural circulation, and compressed gas are used to actuate functions of the safety systems. That eliminates the need for ac power, diesel generators, pumped cooling water, or other active safety-support systems inherent to a typical nuclear power plant. If plant power is lost (or a “safeguards actuation signal” is received), AP1000 is designed to automatically align and actuate a few basic valves, which start up the safety systems—using only Class 1E battery power (Ref. 2, online).

Changing political, regulatory scene

In the past few years, fortunes of nuclear power were seemingly on the rise. Some industry experts even referred to developments in terms of a “renaissance.” As mentioned in Ref. 1, the opinion was that only two events could stop renewal of nuclear power as part of a realistic mix of U.S. energy sources—a major accident and a terrorist attack on a plant. Then, on March 11, 2011, came the accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Detractors of nuclear power continue to be vocal, and repercussions of Fukushima have profoundly changed expectations for the nuclear power industry. At the same time, new reactor designs like AP1000 (and others), stronger regulations, and increased monitoring of plants are among positive developments for the technology.

One indicator of stronger regulatory oversight is NRC’s March 2012 authorization to issue three orders to U.S. commercial nuclear reactors to implement several reactor safety recommendations—based on lessons learned from the Fukushima plant accident (Ref. 3). Order 1 requires the plants to improve protection of safety equipment installed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and to have enough equipment available to support all reactors at a given site simultaneously. Order 2 mandates installation of enhanced equipment to monitor water levels in each plant's spent fuel pool. These orders affect every U.S. commercial nuclear power plant, including the Vogtle reactors.

Order 3 applies only to boiling-water reactors (BWRs) with "Mark I or II" containment design. These reactors must improve their venting systems—and in the case of Mark II reactors install new venting systems—to help prevent or mitigate core damage in case of a serious accident. Plant modifications/requirements for all three orders must be completed by Dec. 31, 2016.

Further recent NRC initiatives involve a detailed information request to every operating U.S. commercial nuclear power plant, parts of which apply to reactors currently under construction or recently licensed. Topics to be addressed include:

  • Reanalysis of earthquake and flooding risks using the latest available information
  • Earthquake and flooding hazard assessment of a plant's ability to meet current requirements
  • Assessment of ability of a plant's communications systems and equipment to perform under onsite/offsite damage and prolonged loss of ac electrical power, 
  • Assessment of plant staffing levels needed to fill emergency positions in response to events simultaneously affecting all reactors at a given site.

What’s ahead?

Several other NRC proposed rulemaking actions and guidelines are expected to be issued in the near future. These will culminate in directives requiring compliance to more stringent nuclear plant operational and safety requirements in the future.

Around 20 other reactor applications are in process—to be built at 16 sites, all but two of which would be at existing nuclear power plants. The next new license approval will likely go to twin reactors at South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina. These two reactors will also be Westinghouse 1,100 MW output AP1000 units. Predicated on timely COL approval, these reactors could be operational in 2018.

Even with further license approvals, however, U.S. nuclear power must contend with serious issues, such as project financing and political/public opposition. Not more than eight additional nuclear plants are expected to be online by 2020. Still, that would be a significant turnaround from prior decades of no new reactors.

Frank J. Bartos, PE, is a Control Engineering contributing content specialist. Reach him at braunbart@sbcglobal.net.




Ref. 1 - Advancing Technology: 'American Idle' - Nuclear Power, Sept. 2010 CE


Ref. 2 – AP1000 Reference


Ref. 3 – NRC Actions in response to the Japan nuclear accident


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