Feds drowning in demand for nuclear power licenses

JUDY PASTERNAK SPECIAL TO MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERSJanuary 25, 2010 

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is bursting out of its headquarters.

Buses shuttle among four structures where the commission has leased overflow space, and portions of the main cafeteria are partitioned off before and after lunch to form makeshift conference rooms. The actual conference rooms have been pressed into service as offices.

The commission's beleaguered staffers call the cause of all this uproar "the tsunami." It's been 25 years since a new nuclear power plant was licensed in the United States, but applications started arriving again in 2007, spurred by incentives launched during President George W. Bush's administration.

By the end of this year, the Energy Department expects to have applications for 31 new reactors.

Fifty-two years after the first American commercial nuclear power generator opened at Shippingport, Pa., 104 units in 31 states produce about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Licenses now being sought would increase generating capacity by about 20 percent.

To accommodate the tsunami of applications, the NRC stuffed nearly 500 new hires and more than 150 contractors into a freshly created Office of New Reactors. Sixty-hour workweeks are routine.

The total number of license applications under active review has more recently dipped, however, from 17 in 2008 to 13 now.

First indication of a slowdown came a year ago, when David Matthews, who oversees safety reviews, got an unexpected call from a vice president of Exelon, an Illinois utility. He told Matthews to put his company's application for a new project in Victoria County, Texas, on ice because the company had changed its mind about which reactor design it wanted to use.

The turmoil in financial markets and its failure to win loan guarantees, at least in the first round, also prompted the company to slow the licensing process. Three more projects have been suspended since: Entergy's Grand Gulf Unit 3 in Port Gibson, Miss., River Bend Unit 3 in St. Francisville, La., and AmerenUE's Callaway Unit 2 near Fulton, Mo.

It seemed the slowdown might be turning around when a request arrived in June for two new reactors at Florida Power & Light Co.'s Turkey Point complex south of Miami. But the utility since has halted work on design, engineering and supplier contracts for the proposed new reactors after Florida regulators slashed its request for a record $1.27 billion rate hike, granting one for only $75.5 million.

The utility still is continuing to seek an NRC license, and if there are licensing delays the NRC doesn't want to be blamed. "We're the victims of those indecisions and changes," Matthews said. "We are not the cause."

Indeed, the licensing process now is expected to take three to four years rather than 14 as in the past, Matthews said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, companies had to qualify for one license to build a reactor and a second to operate it. That left some partially completed reactors standing tall -- but dark.

Now a utility that's granted a license will be able to build and turn it on.

The 2005 energy bill instructed the NRC to precertify new reactor designs, while the older reactors were all custom-designed. The NRC is reviewing four new reactor types, and once the first licenses for each type are granted about 70 percent of any future applications in that category will be standardized.

Matthews said 2016 is the earliest he expects a new unit to go online, using the industry's estimate of about five years for construction.

"If they were to do that, they would build a plant as fast as it's ever been done," he said.

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