Nuclear, Reactors

Standardized Design/Streamlined Licensing Will Pave Path For New Nuclear Units

Issue 4 and Volume 110.

By Steve Blankinship, Associate Editor

Enercon Services has been retained by NuStart Energy, a consortium that includes Exelon, Entergy, Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy, Duke, Southern Company and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to prepare combined license applications (COLAs) for new nuclear power plants in the United States. One application will be developed for the Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear plant design for two units at TVA’s Bellefonte site in Alabama. The other application will be developed for the General Electric ESBWR design at Entergy’s Grand Gulf site in Mississippi. Enercon is also preparing a separate AP1000 COLA for Duke that could be built at a site yet to be determined. Power Engineering magazine recently interviewed Enercon President John Richardson.

PE: What’s your background in the nuclear industry?

Richardson: I was an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry in the early 70s when the nuclear industry was growing exponentially and I wanted to get into it. I worked at the Westinghouse naval reactor facility in Idaho, then got a job at Mississippi Power & Light’s Grand Gulf plant. I was operations superintendent during initial construction and licensing. After the Three Mile Island accident, I became manager of safety and licensing responsible for getting Grand Gulf’s operating license. After that, I entered the consulting business and have been with Enercon for 22 years.

PE: What does Enercon do?

Richardson: We provide environmental consulting and a broad range of engineering and modification work to the commercial nuclear industry. We work with probably 60 percent of the nuclear plants in the United States and are a preferred engineering supplier for about half of the plants in the U.S. fleet.

PE: How would the new plant licensing process likely differ from the protracted and confrontational licensing proceedings typical in the 1970s and 80s?

Richardson: In those days you submitted a preliminary safety analysis report (PSAR) got a construction permit, invested millions, and in some cases billions, of dollars to build the plant, and hoped one day you would get a license to operate it. Those who wanted to stop the process had numerous opportunities to do so. Under that system, there were plants built that never operated. Then after Three Mile Island (TMI), plants already designed and built, or partially built, incurred additional costs and delays associated with changes resulting from TMI.

The new process has yet to be tested. But we would expect that the time between major expenditures and when you know you have an operating license will be much shorter. Not including costs associated with the reactor technology vendor or any limited work performed for site excavation, you are still spending $50 million to $60 million to prepare the construction operating license (COL), environmental report (ER), and final safety analysis report (FSAR), submit them, and have them reviewed by the NRC. But once you have the COL, you are licensed to build and operate the plant. So it certainly reduces the amount of financial risk.

PE: Is there still an Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) that will conduct public hearings?

Richardson: There is still a requirement for public hearings for issuance of the COL. But once the COL is issued, there would only be an ASLB for operating the plant if someone petitions for hearings after the operating and fuel load dates have been announced. There are guidelines in the new 10CFR52 rules that would make it more difficult for an intervenor to reach the threshold for holding a hearing at that point. Under the new licensing requirements, we believe it could not turn into the protracted proceedings we used to see. Also, at that point, the Commission can grant operation for an interim period if there is reasonable assurance of adequate protection to the public. That helps limit the financial risk.

PE: Do the new standardized reactor system designs eliminate many of the issues interveners used to raise to delay and sometimes prevent plants from being built or operated?

Richardson: Yes. The intent is to proceed with more standardized designs already approved by the NRC. So you take the design and simply combine it with site-specific environmental issues. In the past, every plant was unique, so the NRC had to approve the design and siting issues on an individual basis.

PE: But weren’t the reactor designs in those days, whether pressurized water reactor (PWR) or boiler water reactor (BWR), fairly standardized already?

Richardson: Actually there were a lot of differences. At Grand Gulf we had a Mark III containment and a BWR 6. It was the first Mark III containment, and although the concept was the same, there is quite a bit of difference in design features between the Mark III versus the Mark II versus the Mark I. Each one had its own little issues with containment design and, in particular, hydrodynamic loads and so forth. So even though many BWR and PWR features were consistent, when you went through six evolutionary BWR reactor designs there were a lot of changes in fuel designs and analysis models. So there was a lot for the NRC to review and ask questions about. And a lot for the interveners. So although these were evolutionary improvements in the design, they gave interveners opportunities to question the merits of the new technology, so to speak.

PE: Discuss some of the elements that make these new standardized designs better?

Richardson: Both the AP 1000 and GE ESBWR are designed with passive systems with fewer active components such as pumps, valves and HVAC systems. They are designed from a much more modular standpoint to expedite construction. The passive cooling systems for reactors and containments make them much safer. And that’s saying something since it’s pretty hard to beat the current safety record. They also eliminate some of the big features that were always very costly in design and construction such as safety standby diesel generators and ultimate heat sinks. The reduction of active components will reduce maintenance and in-service inspection requirements. The designs also eliminate the need for any safety AC power in the event of a mishap.

PE: How can we build and operate these new plants considering the brain drain suffered by the U.S. nuclear industry due to no new plant being built here in more than two decades?

Richardson: A lot of people and companies have left the industry and there are fewer schools offering nuclear engineering curricula. But you can still attract electrical, mechanical and civil engineers and we still need lots of them. But it takes time to get them up to speed. The same problems apply to craft workers. But with all the publicity about the resurgence of nuclear power and the COL applications there are many more people interested in getting back into the industry, just like happened in the old days. When it becomes clear that new plants are going to be built, a lot more people will be attracted to the industry and others will come back.

PE: Will the independent power segment ever get involved with developing new nuclear plants?

Richardson:. Initially they won’t, but once we get through the licensing process and demonstrate that it works, there could be some interest by independent producers. I’ve had people in the independent sector ask me enough about what’s going on to suggest they are watching it. After we’ve shown that the process works and that we can reach our cost goals, I tend to think there could be some independent involvement down the road.

PE: A major selling point for building more nuclear capacity is energy independence. But isn’t it true that much of our fuel currently comes from places outside the United States?

Richardson: Much of the uranium currently being used is imported, but that doesn’t mean there are no additional resources here in the U.S. Much more can be produced domestically, but based on present demand it’s not economically viable to do it. Actually we produce about 10 percent of the uranium used in the United States domestically. Westinghouse, Framatome ANP, Ltd. and Global Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. produce fuel and fuel assemblies in the U.S. Uranium oxide (yellow cake) from the mines is still being processed by Honeywell in Metropolis, Ill., which is one of only five conversion plants in the world. The yellow cake is processed into UF6, then sent for enrichment before going to major commercial reactor fuel suppliers in the U.S. to be fabricated into commercial fuel.

PE: Is uranium supply something of a moot issue if we are now looking more seriously at reprocessing spent fuel instead of disposing of it permanently?

Richardson: That’s right. The political pendulum seems to be moving back to where it was decades ago where we tended to think that burying spent fuel forever didn’t make much sense. We stopped reprocessing many years ago because of issues about the proliferation of special nuclear materials, particularly plutonium. That issue has now turned out to be very manageable. So it makes a lot of sense to consider storing and recycling the spent fuel. Once you reprocess it, the amount of actual waste from the fuel is very small. Plus you’re taking out most of the long-lived elements that anti-nuclear activists always express concerns about. And the nuclear industry, all up and down the supply chain, is already the most secure industry on earth. Security has been the number 1 priority for many decades so it’s nothing new.

PE: What is the on-site storage situation at U.S. nuclear plants today?

Richardson: It depends on the plant. With temporary pools reaching their storage limits, many plants are now building independent spent fuel storage facilities. These are essentially dry cask storage installations for spent bundles that have been in pools a long time and have therefore decayed.

PE: Size really matters when it comes to building nuclear plants. Both the AP 1000 and the GE ESBWR are very large. Can you discuss those economies of scale?

Richardson: The ESBWR is considerably larger than the AP 1000, but relative to a typical fossil fuel or combined cycle plant, they are both large plants. The AP 1000 is projected to be about 1,200 MW and the ESBWR is the range of 1,550 MW. That’s to help get the generation cost down. Originally Westinghouse was looking at an AP 600 with a target of around 4.3 cents/kWh. Then the industry target dropped to around 3.5 cents/kWh, so Westinghouse scaled it up to 1,000 MW-plus to make it more economical to build.

PE: What is the projected installed capital cost of these units?

Richardson: I think it depends on whose estimates you believe. I have seen industry numbers that range from $1,000 to $1,400/kW, with the initial plants at the high end and the later plants at the lower end of the range. A recent study submitted to the Department of Energy indicated that each unit at the Bellefonte site could cost $2.2 billion.

PE: How long will it take to get these plants licensed and built?

Richardson: We are already working on the applications for NuStart and the independent filing for Duke. That should take 18 to 24 months. Upon completion of that process we would expect the clients to file application with the NRC for a COL. That’s where the uncertainty comes in. We have been told the NRC review will take 30 to 36 months. The new rules allow for a limited work authorization that would allow some light construction to begin while the review is ongoing. That would entail a decision by developers on how much they want to spend before they get the COL. After that, the actual construction would take from 36 to 43 months followed by another 6 to 12 months for initial testing and start-up. So all told, it would likely take 8 to 10 years.

PE: That’s not much better than what we were seeing in the 70s and 80s.

Richardson: We think we can bring that down quite a bit. If we maintain the standardized designs, I think the NRC review and preparation of the COL will take less time since everything will be the same except for site-specific elements. Meanwhile, more people will be interested in conducting work under a limited work authorization and be willing to spend money earlier and get a jump-start. We’ll also perfect some modular construction techniques and be able to build the plants quicker. So once we get through the process the first time, we’ll be able to get the time down quite a bit.

PE: What’s your sense of political and public opinion regarding nuclear compared to what it was back in the 80s?

Richardson: I think it’s much more receptive. Public surveys are very favorable. People in places where nuclear plants have been operating for many years see there’s no pollution, that the plants provide a good tax revenue and bring in lots of high-paying jobs. So the states and local communities are very supportive.

PE: What about environmental activists who say they now support nuclear? Are they sincere or is it just a traditional tactic of saying they support nuclear, or any other source of energy, as a means to deter development of some other energy source, such as coal?

Richardson: There are people who oppose everything and will say anything to derail any project. But there are people who legitimately believe that greenhouse gases drive global warming, while also understanding the need for a growing energy supply to meet growing energy demand if living standards are to increase. And they are finally realizing that to provide needed baseload generation, we will not be able to continue to rely on gas. That leaves coal and nuclear. And if greenhouse gases are a concern for them, that just leaves nuclear.