The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision this week to suspend final approval of new nuclear power plant licenses leaves just two projects – including Plant Vogtle – fully authorized to build and operate the first new U.S. reactors in a generation.
The moratorium, which also stalls license renewals for existing plants, will remain in place while regulators re-evaluate the safety and environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel at commercial reactor sites.
The fate of about 75,000 tons of spent fuel in pools or casks at the nation’s 104 operating reactors is in limbo because the government’s planned nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was halted by the Obama administration and a new solution has not been defined.
A coalition of environmental groups sought the licensing delay after a federal appeals court in Washington ruled in June that NRC’s plan to allow long-term storage of radioactive waste at individual reactors was insufficient, according to The Associate Press.
On Wednesday, the NRC agreed to halt final licensing decisions until the matter can be resolved.
The move will strand 19 final reactor licensing decisions, including nine construction and operating licenses for planned new projects.
Plant Vogtle’s $14 billion expansion, licensed earlier this year, and SCANA’s V.C. Summer expansion in South Carolina were not addressed in the NRC order, however, and may continue as planned, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman at its headquarters in Maryland.
The Vogtle project is well under way – with about 2,200 construction workers on the Burke County site daily – but the licensing freeze is not expected to have any major impacts, said Southern Company spokesman Steve Higginbottom.
“There could be some lessening of competition for skilled labor, but because of where we are already in the construction process, we don’t anticipate a tremendous impact,” he said, adding that the new units are still on track to be completed in 2016 and 2017.
The NRC’s effort to resolve the nuclear waste dilemma, however, could yield new regulations that would affect Plant Vogtle’s completion date, said Tom Clements, the nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
“The combined operating licenses will possibly have to be adjusted pending what happens with the waste confidence issue, and changes to both license conditions and construction activities are quite possible,” he said.
“If there were no final regulations in place for spent fuel management – or if the waste confidence regulations were not yet implemented at the reactor sites – then it is possible that reactor startup and operation would be impacted.”
Spent fuel from decades of operating Plant Vogtle’s units 1 and 2, meanwhile, has nearly filled the available storage space in the pools. Construction is under way to build an above-ground “cask storage” system, which the NRC will license for up to 20 years before a renewal is required.
Cask storage is already in place at Vogtle’s sister nuclear plants Hatch and Farley, which have 42 and 12 casks filled, respectively. Those sites are among 51 licensed cask facilities in 47 locations in the U.S., according to the NRC.