Reaching a major milestone, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Thursday granted a final Design Certification Amendment to Westinghouse’s AP1000 pressurized water reactor design, paving the way for utilities in the U.S. to build nuclear plants using the third-generation reactor design.

The NRC voted to approve the rule certifying an amended version of the AP1000 reactor design, making it valid for 15 years. Westinghouse submitted an application for certification of the original AP1000 standard plant design on March 28, 2002, and the NRC issued a rule certifying that design on Jan. 27, 2006. Toshiba-owned Westinghouse then amended and resubmitted its application on May 27, 2007, to meet new requirements from the NRC, including the ability to withstand an aircraft impact on its shield building. More than 12,000 comments were submitted in response to the NRC’s proposed rule for the amended design that was issued in January.

"The road to receiving Design Certification has been long and sometimes arduous," said Aris Candris, president and CEO of Westinghouse. "But we’ve reached our final destination and the feeling of success can be felt by Westinghouse employees around the world. Now, our U.S. customers are one step closer to constructing AP1000 units and putting thousands to work to ultimately provide future generations with safe, clean and reliable electricity." 

The AP1000 is a 1,100-MW reactor that includes passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for human intervention. The design enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative safety and security functions, and also has been assessed to ensure that it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials, NRC Chair Gregory B. Jaczko said in a statement.

“Both the shield building and the containment vessel play significant roles in the passive safety systems of the AP1000 design, which allow it to safely shut down with no, or minimal, operator action and no AC power,” Westinghouse said in a statement. “The innovative passive safety design was recognized by the NRC as providing significant added capability that allows the plant to safely cope with a Fukushima-type event, a significant reason why the NRC Near-term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima-Daiichi Accident recommended the granting of Design Certification to the AP1000 design without delay.”

The NRC certification, in the form of a final rule, means that applicants for nuclear power plant licenses in the U.S. that reference the AP1000 do not need to submit safety information for the design.

The federal regulatory body said it is reviewing six combined construction and operating licenses (COLs) that reference the amended design, including two separate projects that chose to build AP1000 units—Southern Nuclear’s Vogtle 3 and 4, and South Carolina Electric & Gas’s (SCE&G’s) VC Summer Units 3 and 4. Southern’s COL application for its Vogtle units could be approved before the end of this year, industry sources say, while SCE&G could receive its approval early in 2012. Both projects have begun preliminary construction activities, building non-nuclear plant structures.

Four AP1000s are already under construction at Sanmen and Haiyang in China. The first of those reactors could come online as soon as 2013. Earlier this month, the AP1000 received interim design certification from regulators in the UK, though no nuclear developers have yet chosen to build the design.

"The AP1000 is the reactor design that will set the foundation for the next generation of nuclear plants in the U.S.," said Marilyn Kray, president of NuStart Energy Development LLC, a consortium of electric utilities and reactor vendors that worked under the Department of Energy’s NP2010 program to demonstrate the design certification and licensing of advanced nuclear reactors. "We are excited to see it move forward on the path envisioned seven years ago."

The NRC has certified three other standard reactor designs: the third-generation Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, System 80+, and AP600. Applications are under review for GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s U.S. Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor, and AREVA’s EPR pressurized water reactor.

Sources: POWERnews, NRC, Westinghouse