Nuclear, Reactors

The Nuclear License ‘Freeze’

Issue 5 and Volume 5.

By Brian Wheeler, Editor

For utilities seeking license renewals to extend the operating life of their nuclear power plants, and those wanting to build and operate new plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s order, or ‘freeze’ as it is being referred to, on Aug. 7 may not be the news they wanted to hear.

In response to the June ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit stating it was vacating and remanding the NRC’s waste confidence rule, the five-person commission issued an order stating the regulators would not issue final reactor licenses or 20-year license renewals for existing plants until the agency addresses the court ruling. Waste confidence, according to the NRC, is a generic finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored at reactor sites for decades in either spent fuel pools or dry casks, and that a repository will be available for final disposal of the spent fuel. The NRC order, though, also said current licensing reviews and proceedings “should continue to move forward.”

“We believe it is appropriate to halt nuclear licensing decisions and stop creating an inter-generational debt of nuclear waste that will burden our children and grandchildren for centuries to come,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Here’s the kicker. One thing that has been misunderstood is the fact that the ‘freeze’ does not mean staffers of the U.S. NRC will begin packing up their belongings and shutting down shop. The order could impact licensing reviews for as many as 21 new reactors and 12 license renewals for existing reactors. The NRC will continue to review these renewal and COL applications. The order does not affect licenses already issued or renewed, such as the COLs for Plant Vogtle in Georgia and the V.C. Summer station in South Carolina.

“Although there may be some delay in issuing some renewed licenses, NRC regulations provide that plant operation can continue beyond the original license term and until there is a decision on the renewal application, so long as it has been filed in a timely manner,” said Ellen Ginsberg, NEI’s vice president and general counsel.

But is this decision really going to generate a long delay in new nuclear projects? Probably not.

“The earliest potential final licensing decisions were the Levy County COL and the Indian Point license renewal, but both of those still have a hearing to go through in any case,” said NRC spokesperson David McIntyre in an email. “Those hearings aren’t expected to be finished until sometime next year.”

As far as issuing new COLs, it does not seem new plants are moving along that quickly anyway. Are those looking to build new nuclear generation really going to be impacted by this? Not likely.

Pending applications for new plants are for projects where construction is unlikely to begin before the end of the decade, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Yes, another eight years.

For those seeking their 20-year license renewals, the plants can continue operating past the original license expiration date until the NRC makes a ruling on said application.

On Sept. 6, the NRC announced it is developing an environmental impact statement and a revised waste confidence decision and rule. The EIS and rule are expected to be completed within 24 months.

“Resolving this issue successfully is a Commission priority,” said NRC Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane. “Waste confidence plays a core role in many major licensing actions, such as new reactors and license renewals.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is currently working to complete the Watts Bar 2 project, is reviewing the NRC order’s impact on both Watts Bar 2 and the Bellefonte project, spokesperson Michael Bradley said. The federally-owned utility in April said the Watts Bar 2 project would not enter service until late 2015. The project also still needs an operating license from the NRC, and the NRC has not provided a timeline to complete the review.

Duke Energy, off their recent merger with Progress Energy, isn’t viewing the decision much differently. Duke, along with Progress Energy Carolinas and Progress Energy Florida, has an application in for the Levy site, along with applications for two Westinghouse AP1000 units at the William States Lee site in South Carolina and two AP1000s at the Shearon Harris site in North Carolina. A final safety evaluation report for the Harris site is expected to be complete by September 2013.

“We are encouraged that the NRC will continue to move forward with the all of the licensing reviews and proceedings while the NRC considers options for resolving the Waste confidence issue,” said Dave Scanzoni, Duke Energy spokesperson. “We are confident the NRC will act in a timely manner to formulate a responsible course of action that will address the court decision and allow final licensing decisions that are temporarily on hold to be issued.”

Duke is optimistic, and so should the industry. While challenges for new nuclear exist, this ‘freeze’ should not be added to the list of hurdles the industry must jump.