Nuclear regulators seek data on reactor designs

File/Staff
The cooling towers at Plant Vogtle April 14, 2006 in Waynesboro, Ga.

The process of licensing new reactors for Plant Vogtle and similar nuclear projects could be delayed because of the absence of data needed to certify the new reactor's design, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Southern Nuclear's Plant Vogtle and utilities in South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and North Carolina are planning projects that will use the new AP1000 reactors to be manufactured by Westinghouse.

Part of the commission's role is to certify the design of the new reactors -- a process that must be completed before applicants can be issued a "combined operating license" to authorize actual construction.

In an Aug. 27 letter to Robert Sisk, Westinghouse's manager of AP1000 licensing and customer interface, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned that important review schedules have been repeatedly revised because of the company's "inability to make adequate design information available to the staff."

In particular, the letter said, a chapter on engineered safety features is not complete. "Westinghouse has not met its commitments to provide the necessary design information in a timely manner and as a result has further impacted the review schedule."

The NRC's concerns included technical issues associated with the containment sump and its performance and downstream effects, said the letter, written by David B. Matthews, director of the NRC's Division of New Reactor Licensing.

Westinghouse had been warned earlier this year -- in an April 3 letter from Mr. Matthews -- that continued delays in certification of the reactor's design could affect the issuance of combined operating licenses sought by utilities planning to build new reactors.

Roger Hannah, an NRC spokes man in Atlanta, said it is too early to tell whether the delays will change construction schedules for new plants.

"But the bottom line is, we would not issue a COL (combined operating license) until a final rule was finished certifying the reference design," he said.

Plant Vogtle is already at an advanced stage of its application, having recently received its Early Site Permit that is a precursor to obtaining the combined operating license.

Beth Thomas, a spokesman for Southern Nuclear, the plant's parent company, said it is unlikely any design issues would affect the new reactors' projected startup dates.

"We don't anticipate any changes to our commercial operation date based on this development," she said. Vogtle's Unit 3 is projected to start operations in 2016 and Unit 4 is scheduled to go online in 2017.

Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign director for Friends of the Earth, said the design certification was supposed to be finished in 2006.

"It thus seems that we are once again at the place where no AP1000 certification schedule exists and the summer 2012 time-frame for final reactor approval may once again be in jeopardy," Mr. Clements said.