Early site permit approvals are major milestone for nuclear industry

By Teresa Hansen, Power Engineering Associate Editor and Nuclear Power On-line Editor

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) approval of two early site permits (ESP) in March represents a major milestone for the U.S. commercial nuclear industry. On March 15, the NRC issued the first-of-a-kind ESP to Exelon Generation Co. for the Clinton site near Clinton, Ill. Less than two weeks later, on March 27, the NRC authorized an ESP for System Energy Resources Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Entergy Corp., for the Grand Gulf site near Port Gibson, Miss. The NRC staff has 10 business days to carry out the NRC's directions and issue the Grand Gulf permit.

These ESP approvals are part of a four-year, cost shared program with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Exelon and Entergy. DOE has partnered with the two companies and Dominion Energy since September 2002 to demonstrate the ESP process. The process was established by the NRC in 1989 for utilities to complete the site and environmental evaluations before a decision is made to build a nuclear plant.

Successful completion of the ESP process resolves many site-related safety and environmental issues, said a DOE news release. The ESP indicates the site is suitable for possible future construction and operation of a nuclear power plant. It is valid for up to 20 years, during which time, the company (or any other potential applicant interested in the site) must still seek NRC approval for a combined construction and operating license (COL) to build one or more nuclear plants on the site before any significant construction can occur.

The NRC is continuing to work with North Anna in Virginia and Vogtle in Georgia, which are close to receiving their ESPs. The North Anna application is currently the focus of a hearing by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The DOE said a decision of the North Anna ESP is expected later this year. The NRC expects to issue a draft environmental impact statement and initial safety report on the Vogtle application by late summer.

The DOE press releases commend the NRC's decision to issue the two ESPs. The DOE touted these decisions as a major milestone in the President's plan to expand the use of safe and clean nuclear power. As part of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative - which seeks to change the way Americans power the nation - nuclear power will play an increasingly important role as the demand for electricity grows worldwide.

"Government's role is to create an environment in which clean energy can flourish, and I'm proud to say that we're helping do just that,' Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said. "By demonstrating effectiveness and predictability in the licensing process, utilities will have the information they need to make sound business decisions that can lead to the construction of new nuclear power plants."

Bodman said the DOE is proud to foster an environment where nuclear power can begin to thrive. "We're seeing a lot of momentum in the nuclear world; while promoting nuclear energy is a good policy for government, it can also be good business," he said. "NRC approval of two early site permits in just one month represents a major accomplishment in the Bush Administration's effort to improve nuclear regulatory processes while still demonstrating effectiveness."

The DOE said it is encouraging Entergy's plans to pursue the next licensing phase of submitting a COL application, which is the next step toward building a nuclear power plant in the United States. The DOE pledged to continue its programs with industry partners to lead the path toward a nuclear renaissance, ensuring America's energy future with safe, reliable, emissions-free, renewable and affordable base-load energy.

The NRC's ESP approvals also support DOE's Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010) program, a joint government/industry cost-shared effort to identify sites for new nuclear power plants; develop and bring to market advanced nuclear plant technologies; evaluate the business case for building new nuclear power plants and; demonstrate untested regulatory processes.

President Bush's Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 budget requests $874.2M ($241M, 38.2 percent increase over the FY'07 request) for DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy. $114 million of that request ($60 million, 111 percent increase over the FY 2007 request) has been allocated for NP2010 to complete the remaining ESP demonstration projects and continue the New Nuclear Plant Licensing Demonstration projects. This funding, said the DOE, will allow continued reactor designs and implement further successful licensing interactions with industry to build new nuclear plants by 2009.

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