The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given Southern Nuclear Operating Company (SNC) the green light to load fuel and begin the operation of an AP1000 nuclear reactor at Vogtle Unit 3. The authorization moves Vogtle 3 out of the NRC’s construction reactor oversight program and into the operating reactor oversight process—effectively making Vogtle 3 the first reactor in the nation to reach the milestone as part of the regulator’s Part 52 combined license process.
Vogtle 3 is one of two 1,117-MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors SNC is building for owners Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power Corp., Dalton Utilities, and Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia as part of the much-watched expansion of the 1989-completed 2.4-GW Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke County, Georgia. While years behind schedule, SNC’s parent company Southern Co. last week indicated it expects Unit 3 to enter service in the first quarter of next year, with Unit 4 following in the fourth quarter of 2023.
An Alternative Licensing Process
The AP1000 reactors are the nation’s only new reactors under construction and the first to have successfully neared completion after a construction start since 1978. (Over the short course of nuclear power’s history in the U.S., more than 100 reactors scrutinized by the NRC and its predecessor have been canceled, nearly half of which had already begun construction.) The only new nuclear plant to come online in the U.S. in the past two decades is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s 1.2-GW Watts Bar Unit 2, POWER’s Top Plant in 2018.
However, Watts Bar 2 was built under the NRC’s conventional two-part licensing process (as described in Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations [10 CFR] under Part 50), which requires separate regulatory approval for a construction permit and an operating license. All currently operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. were licensed under the NRC’s historical two-step process.
In 1989, the NRC unveiled an alternative licensing process, 10 CFR Part 52, which allowed a license applicant to receive a combined license (COL) for construction and operation. The process includes optional steps, which allow reactor vendors to apply for approval of a reactor design or builders to apply for an early site permit. Several nuclear project developers have sought NRC COLs, which are valid for 40 years, and may be extended for another 20 years, and the NRC has issued COLs at least eight times.
The Vogtle expansion, notably, marked history in 2012, when the NRC ultimately approved two COLs for Southern Nuclear, marking the first licenses ever approved for a nuclear plant using the one-step licensing process. Southern Nuclear’s original application was submitted in March 2008, followed by a supplemental document submitted in October 2009. Industry then lauded the NRC for reaching a decision in just under 48 months.
After issuing a COL, the NRC must authorize the operation of the facility by verifying that the licensee completed required inspections, tests, and analyses and that acceptance criteria were met. SNC on July 29 notified the NRC the basis of this work (required under 10 CFR 52.103[g]) was complete.
“The issuance of the 103(g) finding follows years of diligent and careful work by the team at the site to submit documentation that Unit 3 has satisfied 398 required inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria (ITAACs) as outlined in Southern Nuclear’s Combined License – helping ensure the unit meets strict nuclear safety and quality standards,” Georgia Power said on Wednesday. “This process was completed on July 29, and the NRC conducted a thorough review process of each submission and targeted inspections of the facility before issuing the 103(g) finding. As required by the NRC, each ITAAC had to be verified before fuel load and operations,” it said.
NRC Licensing: A Brief Explainer
All Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations fall under Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR). To date, all 92 commercially operating nuclear reactors at the nation’s 54 nuclear plants have been licensed under 10 CFR Part 50, which is a historical two-step process involving a construction permit and an operating license as the plant approaches completion. Under Part 50, applicants must undergo an NRC safety review, an environmental review, and an antitrust review.
In the 1990s, the NRC approved a second pathway, 10 CFR Part 52, which allowed an applicant to receive a combined license for construction and operation, with optional steps such as a reactor vendor applying for approval of a reactor design or builders applying for a site permit,” explained Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA), a think tank that works to enable and deploy advanced nuclear power, in a September 2021 technology primer. Licensing options under Part 52, for example, include early site permits (ESP, where applicants can obtain approval for a reactor site without specifying the design of the reactor) and certified standard plant designs, which can be used as pre-approved designs. The NRC has so far issued six ESPs and seven design certifications. On July 29, 2022, notably, the NRC certified NuScale’s 50-MWe (160 MWth) small modular reactor design.
A combined license (COL) granted under Part 52 essentially authorizes construction of the facility much like a construction permit would under Part 50’s two-step process. However, a COL application must also contain the same information required in a Part 50 operating license, including specific inspections, tests, and analyses the applicant must perform.
After issuing a COL, the NRC authorizes operation of the facility after it has verified that the licensee completed required inspections, tests, and analyses, and that acceptance criteria were met. In a final step, the NRC will publish a notice of intended operation of the facility in the Federal Register at least 180 days prior to the date scheduled for initial loading of fuel. However, the NRC maintains oversight of the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant throughout its lifetime to ensure the plant complies with the agency’s regulations “for the protection of public health and safety, the common defense and security, and the environment.”
Separately, as directed by the 2018-enacted Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), the NRC is developing 10 CFR Part 53. Part 53 is “intended to simplify the licensing of advanced reactors by setting safety performance standards as opposed to prescriptive rules and letting applicants demonstrate how they achieve the safety standards,” NIA said. “Part 53 is better suited for advanced reactors than the existing Part 50 or Part 52, which are prescriptive systems tailored to conventional light-water reactors.”
No Further NRC Findings Needed for Fuel Load, Startup
It means, as Georgia Power underscored on Wednesday, “No further NRC findings are necessary in order for Southern Nuclear to load fuel or begin the startup sequence for the new unit. For now, however, Vogtle Unit 4 remains under construction.
While the NRC lauded the milestone, it said it will still engage with SNC to ensure safe progress at Vogtle 3. “This is the first time we’ve authorized a reactor’s initial startup through our Part 52 licensing process,” noted Andrea Veil, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation on Wednesday.“Before authorization, we independently verified that Vogtle Unit 3 has been properly built and will protect public health and safety when it transitions to operation. Our resident inspectors at Vogtle will keep a close eye on Unit 3 as the fuel load and startup testing move forward. We’re focused on safety so the country can use Vogtle’s additional carbon-free electricity. We will maintain this focus as we license the next generation of new reactors.”
At Georgia Power, the historic milestone is heralding new optimism as final preparations continue to bring the reactor online. “Over the next several weeks, well-trained and highly qualified nuclear technicians will continue work required to support loading fuel, which is already onsite, into the unit’s reactor,” the utility said. “This will be followed by several months of startup testing and operations. Startup testing is designed to demonstrate the integrated operation of the primary coolant system and steam supply system at design temperature and pressure with fuel inside the reactor. Operators will also bring the plant from cold shutdown to initial criticality, synchronize the Unit to the grid and systematically raise power to 100%.”
Updated (Aug. 4): Adds comments from Georgia Power, including Vogtle 3 project status. Adds NRC licensing explainer.