A nuclear reactor that is scheduled to be built in South Carolina will clear a hurdle this week. Westinghouse, the company that manufactures the new reactors, says safety inspectors have finished reviewing the design of the AP1000 reactors and are passing it on for full approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“The staff feels that all of its technical questions have been answered,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said, “So now the staff will provide some language… that would say the AP1000 is certified for use in the United States.” He said the commission will likely decide by the end of the year whether to certify the reactors.
South Carolina Electric & Gas is hoping to install two of the AP1000 models at its V.C. Summer Nuclear Station outside Jenkinsville in Fairfield County. However, if the NRC approves the design, the company must still go through an additional approval process before it can install the reactors. A second decision on that is expected in early 2012.
The approval process was not a quick one. Westinghouse revised the AP1000 design 19 times over the last decade to answer NRC staff’s questions and concerns. The Fairfield County site and the Vogtle Nuclear Station outside Augusta, Georgia will be the first nuclear plants to use the new reactors, if they are approved. Other companies are also planning to install the AP1000, but are not as far along in the approval process.
“We’re in the home stretch to receive final approval,” Westinghouse Electric Chief Executive Officer Aris Candris said in the company’s announcement.
The biggest safety component of the AP1000 reactor is its “passive core cooling system” which is designed to automatically shut down the reactor in the event of a complete power loss– such as what happened at the Fukushima reactors in Japan– by using gravity, circulation, and pressure.
SCE&G is one of the first companies to take advantage of a new approval process, called a Combined Construction and Operating License (COL). In the past, building a new reactor meant getting approval both before and after construction. Prior to the change, if opposition emerged after a site was completed and before it began operating, the power utility risked a tremendous financial hit. Under a COL, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducts reviews of the V.C. Summer site during construction and holds another public hearing upon its completion to determine if the site meets the agency’s criteria.
The V.C. Summer facility has been under construction for several years, as SCE&G is doing as much work as allowed while it waits for a decision. If construction continues on schedule (which is never certain in the heavily-regulated nuclear industry), the reactors will be online in 2016.