In 2003, the buzz in the chambers of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board at U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) headquarters was the impending Department of Energy (DOE) application for the High Level Waste Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. At that time, many thought the future of nuclear power was limited to decommissioning and nuclear waste management. With the Yucca Mountain proceeding looming, the Licensing Board, which acts as the adjudicatory branch for the agency, was eager to be well prepared to expeditiously process DOE’s application.

In other parts of the NRC, the buzz was beginning to shift from nuclear waste to nuclear generation. The NRC was becoming aware that some electric companies were exploring the possibility of building new nuclear plants in the United States. In response to that possibility, the Commission directed the NRC staff to assess its readiness to review license applications and inspect new nuclear power plants, and to examine the regulatory infrastructure of several regulations governing nuclear power plant construction.

Why Nuclear?

From the NRC’s initial efforts to prepare for new applications, several factors hastened the move to push nuclear out of the “end stage” of decommissioning and disposal and back to the “beginning stage,” of new plant construction. Among these factors, which include rising energy costs, growing power demand, the need for energy independence, one of the strongest swayers of public—and consequently political—opinion has been the fact that nuclear energy generation does not emit carbon dioxide, and therefore does not contribute to greenhouse gases. This factor alone has persuaded many people, including many environmentalists, to hop on the nuclear bandwagon.

With billions of dollars at stake in new nuclear construction, the industry—and its investors—need to be certain that the favorable winds leading people to believe we are on the verge of a nuclear renaissance will not suddenly shift. At this time, barring some sort of major incident at a plant (an accident is unlikely in the United States given the safety record of plants, but terrorism remains a threat), the construction of new nuclear power plants in the near future seems very likely.

For its part, the government has done much to encourage this development. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was filled with important incentives for nuclear power, including loan guarantees, a production tax credit, and standby support to provide risk insurance for certain delays attributed to the regulatory process or litigation. The NRC has made a full throttle effort to minimize the potential for such delays. One of the agency’s main efforts in the past few years has focused on eliminating uncertainty in the licensing process, including the litigation before the licensing board.

Agency Changes to the Licensing Process

To make the licensing process more efficient, the NRC has revamped many regulations and guidelines. Included among these were: 10 C.F.R. Part 2, the regulations governing the rules of practice for licensing proceedings; 10 C.F.R. Part 50, the existing regulations governing licensing and regulation of nuclear power plants; and of course 10 C.F.R. Part 52, the regulations governing combined licenses, design certifications, and approvals for new advanced nuclear power plants. The NRC has also issued substantial revisions to numerous guidelines, including: the Standard Review Plan for the Review of Safety Analysis Reports (NUREG-0800) and Regulatory Guide 1.206, “Combined License Applications for Nuclear Power Plants.”

The agency is also drafting new documents, as necessary, to support the changes to the regulations. Most notably, the introduction of "inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria" (ITAAC) into the Part 52 licensing process created a design specific pre-approved set of performance standards that the licensee needs to meet before it can load fuel and operate the plant. Therefore, the NRC is in the process of creating a new construction inspection program for implementing these standards.

Most recently, the NRC published a draft supplement to the Commission’s Policy Statement on the Conduct of Adjudications in June 2007. The draft policy statement focuses primarily on new reactor licensing reviews and proposes to improve the hearing process by incorporating the “design-centered review approach” utilized by NRC to review new license applications into the existing policies on adjudication. The draft policy statement also addresses limited work authorizations, the timing of hearings on environmental and safety issues, and the order of procedure for ITAAC hearings.

Moving toward the Application: Where Are We Now?

The NRC is about to put all its preparations to the test. The agency has already issued early site permits (ESP) for new reactors and received a partial application for a combined operating license (COL).

Early Site Permit Reviews

The NRC has received four ESP applications and issued two permits. The NRC regulations authorize the agency to issue an ESP for approval of one or more sites for a new reactor, separate from an application for a construction permit or COL. Early site permits are good for 10 to 20 years and are renewable. The NRC review of an early site permit application addresses site safety issues, environmental protection issues, and plans for coping with emergencies, independent of the review of a specific nuclear plant design.

The applications received to date include: Exelon Generation Company, LLC (application for Clinton plant in Illinois received September 25, 2003); System Energy Resources Inc. (application for Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi received October 21, 2003); Dominion Nuclear North Anna, LLC (application for North Anna plant in Virginia received September 25, 2003); and most recently Southern Nuclear Operating Company (application for Vogtle plant in Georgia received August 15, 2006). The NRC issued the Clinton ESP and the Grand Gulf ESP on March 13, 2007 and April 5, 2007, respectively.

In late 2006, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards sent a letter to the NRC addressing “lessons learned” from the ESP process. The two primary issues of generic applicability were: (1) the need to develop a common understanding between the NRC staff and the applicant regarding application expectations, and (2) the need for the NRC staff to develop standards for the use of internet data in applications.

The ESP proceedings also gave the Licensing Board and the parties their first opportunity to iron out the required uncontested hearing in relation to new reactors. Under the regulations, the Licensing Board must conduct a hearing to ensure that the NRC staff performed an adequate safety and environmental review of the ESP or COL applications. The Commission provided a significant amount of guidance on both the content and conduct of these hearings in its review of the Licensing Board’s ESP decisions. The ESP proceedings also presented the Licensing Board and parties a chance to use the amended Part 2 regulations.

Combined Operating Licenses

A COL is authorization from the NRC to construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. Prior to issuing a COL, the NRC staff must complete a safety and environmental review of the application. In the 2007-2009 timeframe, the Commission anticipates 19 COL applications to operate a total of 28 new reactor units. The first kick-off to this expected wave of license applications took place this July, when UniStar Nuclear submitted the Environmental Report portion of its COL application for a new reactor at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Lusby, Maryland. The NRC regulations allow an applicant to submit one part of a COL application up to six months before the remainder is submitted to the NRC. A COL application has primarily two parts: an environmental report and a safety analysis report.

Conclusions

With the submission of the COL applications, the NRC will get its first real opportunity to implement the numerous changes the agency has made over the last several years. While the success of these changes remains to be seen, they were implemented after the NRC spent years carefully deliberating with the industry and other interested stakeholders. If the NRC, and applicants, remain vigilant in their dedication to timely and efficient licensing proceedings, then new nuclear in the United States should thrive in the years to come.