US one-step license gains rely on comprehensive build plan

The ability to secure all necessary licenses before starting construction of new US nuclear reactors is the primary benefit of the Nuclear Regulatory Committee’s (NRC) Part 52 regulation and early design finalization is key to avoiding delays.

The Part 52 regulation allows the licensing of a facility before it is built to ensure safety issues are addressed at the start of the process. Up until this procedure, the NRC issued a construction permit based on a preliminary design and safety issues were not fully resolved until the end of the licensing process.

“Without re-imagining the new plant licensing process - creating Part 52 - there would be no plants under construction in the US,” said Russ Bell, senior director - new plant licensing, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

“The primary benefit of Part 52 has been to resolve safety issues upfront such that the companies have the regulatory certainty that they need to proceed with the project,” he said.

The new licensing process, used for the first time on the Vogtle 3 & 4 project in Georgia and the V.C. Summer 2 & 3 project in South Carolina, has led to some challenges during the construction phase. Both projects are using the Westinghouse AP1000 design.

“Lead project experience has underscored the importance of design finalization before construction, and of assuring adequate oversight of the supply chain to assure that suppliers meet the quality and schedule requirements of the projects,” Bell said.

“It is worth noting that, so far, the most significant challenges to the lead projects have had little or nothing to do with the Part 52 licensing process,” he said.

One-step licensing

Initially, the application process for new builds was designed to be a linear one. Design certifications approved by the NRC would be taken off the shelf by customers and incorporated 100% onto their sites.

However, as interest in new nuclear plants in the US began to climb, some customers were frustrated at the waiting time for design certification.

The NRC began allocating combined construction and operating licenses if customers’ design certifications had been accepted previously by the regulatory agency. For the Westinghouse AP1000 being used by the Vogtle 3 & 4 project in Georgia and the V.C. Summer 2 & 3 project in South Carolina, the design was certified in 2006, only to see a major revision filed the following year.

“It was a complicated process,” David Matthews, Vice-President of Nuclear Energy Consultants, Inc., said. “Each time the design certification changed, Vogtle and Summer had to change their applications to reflect the latest version.”

Matthews, then the NRC’s director of new reactor licensing, spearheaded the Part 52 regulation work, allowing applicants to gain approval to begin construction as long as they agreed to adopt all the safety changes that the vendor introduced into the design going forward.

“From the documentation I issued, they formed design-centered working groups that facilitated the uniformity among all their designs,” Matthews said.

“For Vogtle and Summer, on December 30, 2011, they received those licenses, both combined construction and operating licenses. They will not have to go through a separate licensing process to begin loading fuel and operating; that is the primary benefit hoped for and we expect it to be realized; we’ve achieved one-step licensing.”

Improvements planned

While strides are being made, the AP1000 and other NRC-certified designs are not without problems in the license application process, notably in the Tier 2* category of information.

Each design contains ‘Tiers’ of safety information. For an applicant to change information in Tier 1 information- Generic design control document (generic DCD) that is approved and certified by NRC- it must receive an exemption from the NRC. For Tier 2 information, that which is contained in the generic DCD that is approved but not certified by the NRC, changes require an amendment from the NRC. Other design information labelled as Tier 2* cannot be changed without the NRC’s prior approval.

“We are learning that Tier 2* does not add value in terms of safety benefit and should not be included in future design certifications,” Bell said.

“The NRC is rethinking Tier 2* as well, and we expect to learn the outcome of NRC staff deliberations soon,” he said.

Bell also noted Part 52’s attention to Inspections, Test, Analyses, and Acceptance Criteria (ITAAC) as an area where both the industry and the NRC are attempting to standardize and improve the process for future applicants.

Early lessons

As the first plants being built under the new licensing process, the Vogtle 3 & 4 and V.C. Summer 2 & 3 projects have suffered delays due to the focus on safety and design approval, ahead of other supply decisions, according to Matthews.

“We didn’t see the challenge that would ensue after the license was issued,” he said. “Even before the certified design was approved, the designers and customers started to collect all the changes they thought they would have to make - mistakes, difficulties with construction, etc. - and as long as those changes were not of the nature that would alter our safety findings, they were able to defer those until after the license was issued.”

This resulted in a large backlog of changes to be made, many of which resulted in customers applying to the NRC for licensing exemptions or amendments, which in turn lead to public participation and hearings.

There have been long-running disputes between the developers and the contractors of the Vogtle 3 & 4 and V.C. Summer 2 & 3 projects over delays during the construction phases.

The Vogtle 3 & 4 reactors were originally scheduled to come online 2016 and 2017, but delays have pushed back the expected start up dates to June 2019 (Unit 3) and June 2020 (Unit 4). The V.C. Summer project has also seen delays and the scheduled completion dates for Units 2 and 3 are August 31, 2019 and August 31, 2020, respectively.

It is not clear to what extent the new regulation itself impacted the project timelines of the Vogtle and V.C. Summer projects and respective lead developers Georgia Power and SCANA have signed new EPC terms with Westinghouse and Fluor to improve project management.

In a quarterly report issued in February, SCANA said Westinghouse and Fluor are "moving to standardize and simplify work packages for construction activity related to the nuclear islands (NIs) for the four units, streamline the process for the transfer of equipment between suppliers and contractors, and minimize design changes being communicated to module and submodule vendors."

By Nick Georgandis