Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pace of NRC license reviews aired at ANS

The nuclear industry is not happy about some aspects of the process

moneywheelOne of the more significant misconceptions about licensing a new nuclear power plant is that if you throw more money at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC), it will speed up the approval process for new reactor projects and designs. This turns out to be wrong.

The license applicants and reactor vendors want the NRC go move faster, but their perception, as aired at a panel discussion held at the American Nuclear Society Annual meeting on 6/16, is that this is not happening. Although people were polite, it was a tense session. Off-hand sardonic remarks seemed to travel in the air. Frustration with government regulators can sometimes turn up some weird analogies and one was shared with me by an industry representative.

The metaphor is that if it takes a one woman nine months to give birth to a new baby, if you get nine women together, you ought to be able to have the baby in one month. Some things just don't work that way and throwing money at the NRC licensing process for new nuclear plants is one of them.

For the impatient, the answer, again metaphorically speaking, is that if you want to speed up the process, then take your electronic filing, put it in the microwave, add water, hit the power button and wait 42 months. Naturally, the nuclear industry doesn't see it that way. That somewhat unsympathetic comment came from another member of the audience, and not from an NRC official. What the NRC officials did say is that the agency is committed by its own regulations to lay down a record of environmental and safety reviews so 42 months is what it takes, assuming all else goes well.

These differences made for an interesting dialog held June 16 between a senior NRC official and some industry licensing managers. It aired out the views of both groups and shed light on what's taking so long.

High wire acts with billions at stake

high wire actGetting an NRC license to build a nuclear power plant, or certify a new reactor design, is a high wire act that can cost $50 million, more or less, and that just gets the paperwork done. There is a saying in the industry that when the weight of the paper equals that of the reactor vessel, you've done your job. It isn't true, but for some it feels that way.

Dave Matthews, Director, New Reactor Licensing, at the NRC started the meeting by describing the scope of work facing the agency. There are 18 COL applications that have been filed and three new reactor designs that are undergoing design certification (Areva's EPR, Mitsubishi's APWR, and GE's ESBWR).

The outlook to 2020, which at this point is just a decade away, is that 4-8 reactors will be in revenue services and another 15-18 new plants will be in some stage of formal development having received their license from the NRC. Matthews made it clear that just about everyone in the government and the industry regards the success of the '1st wave' as setting the stage for the next dozen or so projects.

Schedules are commitments

By 2011 the NRC is committed to completing a schedule for some of the COL applications on file and all of the design certifications. The schedules published by the NRC are regulatory instruments. Matthews said the license applicants and the reactor vendors need to meet the deadlines for the NRC's requests for information which come with a 30-day turn around.

smokey_fishGenerally, the industry members of the panel expressed annoyance with what they considered to be "nit pick" questions submitted by the virtual (electronic) truckload and all with 30-day clocks on them. The applicants aren't exactly thrilled with some of the questions or the huge volume. Taken together the burden is sometimes overwhelming.

Greg Gibson from Unistar, working on the Calvert Cliffs III project, said some of the requests appear to be trivial such as one that asked for the screen mesh size of a net used to capture and count aquatic wildlife in a survey of the local environment.

There are deficiencies in some of the applications which holds things up Matthews said. Also, some firms that submitted COL applications have put them on hold hoping to concentrate the NRC's regulatory review on higher priority projects. Matthews noted that Unistar has taken this approach with the Nine Mile plant in upstate New York in an effort to make progress with the Calvert Cliffs III project.

Dollars in as fees are not always dollars for the NRC’s work

It doesn't always work that way inside the agency Matthews said. As a fee recovery agency which bills applicants for the time of NRC engineers at least $250/hr, some applications will not be reviewed as quickly as others. One of the reasons is that while the NRC is required by law to collect the fees, Congress doesn't always appropriate the money back to the agency to cover the full cost of requested services.

Congress deals with the NRC fees the same way it does for entrance fees to national parks. The money goes into the U.S. Treasury, but that does not mean it gets allocated to the agency on a dollar-for-dollar basis. In fact, the NRC has two separate accounts. The first is funding to respond to regulatory requirements, such as license applications, about 90%, which comes from fees, and the second is for some agency initiatives such as international standards development, which comes from general tax revenues.

congressWith a budget in 2009 of just over $1 billion, Matthews said it isn't enough to make the industry happy all the time. Some in-and-outside the agency see the diversion of fees into other government accounts as a problem.

Their logic is that the fees for regulatory review are fees-for-service. Pre-emptive allocation of the money elsewhere by Congress raises hackles with the nuclear utilities and reactor vendors who have applications pending with the agency.

Design references implement the 80-20 rule

In another effort to speed things up, the industry has been trying to cut down on the number of unique reviews the NRC has to make by taking a "fleet" approach to standard references. For instance, Unistar is using Calvert Cliffs as a design reference for Nine Mile, Bell Bend, and any other Areva EPR the consortium will build.

Peter Hastings of Duke Energy, who is working with applications involving the Westinghouse AP1000, told the ANS panel that 80% of the standard reference design data is common to all of the projects. The 20% that is not is what is getting the NRC's attention. He said, "site specific challenges are a minefield," which can throw a license application behind schedule.

UnderConstruction Hastings said are that Vogtle will be the standard design reference submitted to the NRC for the "fleet" of AP1000s being built in the South and not TVA's Bellefonte Units 3&4. With EPC contracts in place at Vogtle, V.C. Summer, and Levy County, the Westinghouse reviews can't afford to be held up while TVA makes up its mind whether to go forward with Bellefonte 3&4, complete units 1&2, which were stopped in the 80s, or do all four. The lack of a defined construction schedule for any unit at Bellefonte is what drove the change.

Hastings also revealed that the COL for the Florida Power & Light dual AP1000 plants at Turkey Point will be submitted by the end of June and not in 2010 as indicated earlier this year by the utility.

Lessons learned in China will bring success to the U.S.

Hastings said Westinghouse is learning from the work it is doing in China. It has poured concrete for two AP1000s at Sanmen and will build two more at Haiyang. The Sanmen unit is supposed to enter revenue service in 2013 and Haiyang will start up a year later. Westinghouse has engineers in China who will bring lessons learned home to the U.S. to help make construction go more smoothly at new nuclear power plants here.

Another factor which will make life easier for Duke and Westinghouse is that five-of-the-seven plants it is working with are located at existing reactor sites. Only two are "greenfield" Levy county and William Lee. This means the projects at existing reactor sites already have data for the environmental impact statement and other site assessment information.

What to do about those delays?

I came away from the session with a perception that the NRC does not have enough money to process all the COL license applications in 42 months. However, some are not ready for prime time, because of deficiences, and other license reviews have been suspended at the applicant's request. The situation is better with reactor design certification. There NRC expects to finish all three that it has docketed by 2011.

The industry panel wasn't all about gripes and schedules. There is a atmosphere of respect between the NRC officials, some of whom spoke from the audience, and the industry licensing engineers. But no one is shy about airing a gripe. So in that regard, the ANS panel served a useful role of reminding everyone of the realities of the NRC’s review process.

big smallThe utilities and reactor vendors know the analogy of adding eight women to one that is already pregnant get a baby in one month is illogical. However, with tens of billions riding on these projects, if the industry could, metaphorically speaking, find a way to get those eight other women to move the NRC to speed things up, they'd have display ads in the Atlanta Constitution by sundown.

On the other hand, maybe they should save their money and instead book flights to Washington to lobby Congress to not use the NRC's budget to de facto throttle the future of the nuclear renaissance.

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Jason Ribeiro said...

Great post Dan. The question I have is, given the work capacity of the NRC, has anyone estimated the maximum number of applications they can process in the next 10, 15, 20 years if their budget stays on target to expectations?

Next, did the NRC officials indicate their work capacity is strained and they need a budget increase? If so, what might be an achievable increase in budget size to improve their output capacity?

djysrv said...

I came away from the session with a perception that the NRC does not have enough money to process all the COL license applications in 42 months. However, some are not ready for prime time and others have been suspended at the applicant's request. The situation is better with reactor design certification. There NRC expects to finish all three that it has docketed by 2011.

Rod Adams said...

Dan - I must challenge your analogy. The real complaint is that the NRC is the gate keeper for a desperately needed expansion of emission free energy production capacity. Most players recognize that it takes a certain amount of gestation to get any given project (baby) from conception to birth. However, we also recognize that a goal of rapid expansion can be achieved with more people working at the same time. If you want to give birth to one baby it takes two people and nine months, but a parallel effort by
more people provides a lot more births of equal quality.

Left Atomics said...

I like the "Fleet Approach". However, it seems to me that a compromise "Site Fleet" approval should be easy...building 2 units at a single site should be considered as "one". Do they do this or are they considered completely separate C&OL?