Thursday, March 10, 2011

High five for GE-Hitachi new reactor design at NRC

ESBWR gets final safety evaluation report

vicotry lapGE-Hitachi is due a victory lap after learning this week that the NRC has issued the final safety evaluation report for the firm's 1,500 MW ESBWR reactor design.

It is a major milestone toward certifying the reactor for sale in the U.S. Because the NRC certification is considered to be the "gold standard" internationally in terms of regulatory scrutiny, this step will likely produce new interest in global markets and boost the reactor's prospects for sales.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a press statement it issued a final safety evaluation report (FSER) and final design approval for GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR).

The approval, which indicates the NRC finds the design technically acceptable but does not fully certify the design, is good for 15 years.

Caroline Reda “The ESBWR is one final step away from becoming a reality,” said Caroline Reda, (left) president and CEO of GEH. “The FSER and FDA mark a crucial step forward for the ESBWR’s global commercial prospects. We appreciate the diligence of the NRC during the review process, which enables the ESBWR to remain on track to receive the NRC’s final design certification by this fall.”

U.S. prospects improved over two years ago

Michigan utility DTE Energy has selected the ESBWR design for a potential reactor project, Fermi 3, next to its existing Fermi 2 plant south of Detroit. The NRC is currently reviewing DTE Energy’s license application for the Fermi 3 project, which serves as the “reference combined license application” for the ESBWR design.

Assuming the auto industry comes back in Michigan, the car plants are going to need that electricity. Maybe to boost sales GE-Hitachi should take a page from Chrysler's playbook and start running TV ads like the two-minute macho masterpiece aired at the 2011 Superbowl.

A single ESBWR project would create several thousand construction jobs and several hundred permanent engineering positions while also creating opportunities for local equipment and service vendors.

International prospects better

Poland is proposing to build two nuclear power plants. GEH has been expanding its network of local equipment suppliers and engineering firms to prepare for potential reactor projects. In February 2011, GEH signed an MOU with the Institute of Atomic Energy in Poland (POLATOM), a research institute that advises the Polish government on nuclear energy issues.

In January 2011, in Gdansk, GEH signed preliminary agreements with Poland’s Stocznia Gdansk, a major shipyard, and RAFAKO S.A., Europe’s leading boiler equipment manufacturer, to pursue opportunities to build nuclear reactor components for GEH.

Separately, in February 2011, GEH and Lockheed Martin Corporation signed an agreement for Lockheed Martin Corporation to design and manufacture the main reactor control room systems for the ESBWR. It will be a digital system from the ground up.

India sticks it to U.S. over liability law

Another of those key commercial prospects is India, which as part of its massive nuclear energy expansion program has identified a site that would feature multiple GEH ESBWR reactors. GEH CEO Caroline Reda has been gung ho in pursuit of business with India traveling there as part of an official U.S. trade mission in February 2011.

To ink deals there, the Indian government will have to set aside a draconian supplier liability law that has locked out American firms from entering the market. Despite considerable diplomatic pressure, and a visit from President Obama last November, the Indian government hasn't budged on the issue.

Instead, it has inked deals with Russia's Atomstroyexport and French nuclear giant Areva. Two of the new Russian reactors, 1,000 MW VVER's, will be commissioned and enter revenue service this month.

Troubled past now overcome

dump truckThe success this week at the NRC is a major turn around for GE-Hitachi. It hasn't always been this way. In the past three years, three major U.S. utilities unceremoniously dumped the ESBWR as the referenced reactor design in their license applications for new reactors. Exelon, Entergy, and Dominion all changed their minds, albeit for different reasons.

Because of delays in the ESBWR reactor design certification process in 2008, the Department of Energy downgraded Exelon's application for a loan guarantee for the Texas site. Subsequently, Exelon changed its mind about a license application altogether and filed an Early Site Permit for the Victoria, Texas, site. It has proposed to build twin reactors there.

Entergy had plans to build new twin reactor sites in Louisiana and Mississippi. When the recession hit in 2008, it stopped work on both license applications and opted for an uprate to an operating reactor.

Dominion reconsidered a number of economic and technical factors and changed horses now referencing Mitsubishi's APWR reactor for its North Anna, Virginia site.

Final rule making ahead

NRC staff has spent approximately five years considering whether to certify the reactor. Separately, the NRC is considering GE-Hitachi’s request to certify the design through rulemaking. The Commission is currently considering the NRC’s staff’s request to publish that proposed rule.

signpost1“Our technical experts have asked tough questions to ensure GE-Hitachi has appropriately addressed the NRC’s requirements, and after their extensive technical evaluation they’re satisfied with the ESBWR design,” said Michael Johnson, director of NRC’s Office of New Reactors.

“If the Commission agrees with the staff, we’ll move on to fully certifying the design, incorporating it into our regulations using a rule-making process that includes a public comment period.”

Neither a final design approval nor design certification grant permission to build or operate a reactor. Full certification, if granted by the Commission following the staff’s recommendation, is valid for 15 years and allows a utility to reference the design when applying for a Combined License to build and operate a nuclear power plant. NRC has long sought standardization of nuclear power plant designs to help enhance safety and bring efficiency to the reactor licensing process.

Status of other reactor design certifications

The NRC has certified four other designs: the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), System 80+, AP600 and AP1000. The agency has issued proposed rules to certify revised versions of the ABWR and AP1000.

The staff is reviewing applications to certify two other designs: Areva's U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) and Mitsubishi's U.S. Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor (APWR).

The final rule on the AREVA EPR is due in winter 2013 according to a calendar published by the NRC.

The NRC has not published a date on its regulatory calendar for a final rule on the Mitsubishi APWR. Work on reactor license applications at Luminant’s Comanche Peak (2 1700 MW APWRs) and Dominion’s North Anna site (1 1500 MW APWR) has been delayed by 18 months by the NRC while it finishes design certification of the APWR.

The delays on the license applications are not seen as being that serious as neither utility is in a hurry to start construction. The reasons are the lack of federal loan guarantees and the need for improving demand for electricity.

ESBWR documents

The FSER will be available through the NRC’s electronic documents database, ADAMS, by going to: and entering accession number ML103470210

More information about the ESBWR design review can be found on the NRC’s website.

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