There are only two nuclear reactors under construction in the United States: Units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. Unlike existing operating reactors in the United States, these new reactors are the Westinghouse “AP1000” design, which features a simpler and more reliable safety system based on natural principles like gravity and convective heat transfer, and less on valves and pumps like older designs.
The new units are also unique in that they are being licensed under a different framework than the current fleet; in fact, they are the first reactors to be licensed under 10 CFR Part 52 since the regulation’s establishment in 1989. Southern Nuclear Operating Company (SNC) began construction of the units in 2009, and now they are both nearing completion.
Vogtle Unit 3 was intended to come online in the first quarter of 2023. However, start-up has been delayed until April due to the discovery in early January of an excessively vibrating pipe. In order to properly brace the pipe, SNC needed to request a license amendment from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would allow the company to operate the reactor in Mode 4 (start-up mode) while that pipe and related equipment were taken out of service for modifications. SNC requested expedited approval of the license amendment, which is allowed when certain criteria are met. One criteria is the NRC’s determination that there are no significant hazards—that is, no significant increase in the probability of an accident or no significant reduction in the margin of safety—should the amendment be granted.
The NRC was responsive to SNC’s needs. On January 12, 2023, SNC submitted the license amendment and requested approval in three days. The NRC promptly scheduled the required public meetings, reviewed the license amendment request, found that issuance of the amendment imposed no significant hazards, and issued an approval the next day. As part of the license amendment, the NRC is required to publish a notice of issuance and an opportunity for hearing and public comment. In response, the Breakthrough Institute has submitted a comment commending the NRC staff for their prompt approval of the license amendment.
To be sure, the delay in starting up Vogtle Unit 3 will still be costly—originally reported at $30 million because it was expected to take a month to obtain the license amendment, instead of the three days it actually took. However, these costs are not due to the NRC. The main expense is because the plant owners have invested billions of dollars in the project and are paying interest on the loans, with no revenue from production. If Vogtle Unit 4, which is now supposed to come online in the fourth quarter of 2023, has the same issue, the fix will cost less. It is not yet in start-up mode, and with other work left to do on the reactor, fixing the pipe brace may not cause any delay.
Among the lessons to be learned here is that not everything that sets back a nuclear project is the fault of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But there is another lesson here. This was amendment number 189—and there are months of work left where new issues could be uncovered.
If we are to successfully decarbonize, we’ll need a lot of reactors. And getting there will require a smoother, faster process from design to flipping the switch. Part of that has to be the NRC making timely and reasonable decisions, as it did in this case.