Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011
By Rob Pavey, Staff Writer
Those deliberations – which begin Tuesday – are the latest in a series of firsts for an expansion that could bring 3,500 construction jobs to Georgia.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko noted that the Vogtle application is the first to reach the final steps toward obtaining the first "combined operating license" that would allow both the construction and operation of new reactors.
"This mandatory hearing on the first COL application represents a critical step in the NRC’s license review process," he said.
The $14.8 billion Vogtle project, if licensed, would also have the first new commercial power reactors to be built in the U.S. in a generation – and would be the first project in the nation to utilize the new AP1000 modular reactor design created by Westingthouse.
"I look forward to working with my colleagues as we approach this significant assignment of delving into the adequacy of the NRC staff’s review of this application," Jaczko said of the hearing, which will include presentations from Southern Nuclear experts and NRC staff members.
Although testimony will be Tuesday and possibly Wednesday, the commission will not rule on the request this week, said Scott Burnell, an NRC headquarters spokesman.
"This is more information gathering and discussion," he said. "The authority to issue the license lies with the director of the NRC Office of New Reactors, and he would be able to make a final decision once the commission issues its findings."
Southern Nuclear has passed most major milestones in the licensing process – such as safety and environmental reviews – but cannot receive a combined operating license until the NRC formally agrees to certify the design of the AP1000 reactors.
Although the NRC has indicated it will recommend certification for the design, that final step has not yet occurred. "The staff expects to give the commission that proposed final rule in the near future, but we don’t have a specific date."
The AP1000 has been praised for its passive cooling system in which water stored above the reactor can flow into the unit by gravity, and without electricity or pumps. The first such units in the world are already under construction in China, where four new units are being added to existing nuclear plants.
If the certification rule is approved late this year, it could allow a decision on the Vogtle license early next year, Burnell said.
Southern Nuclear officials, meanwhile, are optimistic that all those issues could be resolved earlier.
"We still believe we will receive the COL around the end of the year," company spokesman Steve Higginbottom said. "We can see the finish line."
Some work is already under way at the Burke County site, as allowed under a federal Early Site Permit that enabled site preparation to begin before a formal license is granted. Those efforts will help the construction of Units 3 and 4 move along faster, with a current schedule that calls for bringing the new units online in 2016 and 2017.
One other first for the Vogtle project involves Southern Nuclear’s acquisition of the first-ever federal loan guarantee announced by the Obama Administration in February 2010.
The agreement, for which final terms remain under negotiation, will allow up to $8.33 billion in financing for the project. One of the conditions of receiving that financial commitment is the final approval for the combined operating license.
Although the NRC’s scrutiny this week of the Vogtle application is the first, another nearby project isn’t far behind.
SCANA Corp. is planning two new reactors at its V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina, and is scheduled to go before the NRC to discuss its final license request Oct. 11-12, Burnell said.
Last week, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the ratings of SCANA Corp., citing, among other reasons, "the heightened risk associated with a large nuclear construction program extending through 2019 that is expected to be about 50 percent debt financed and will pressure future financial metrics."
Higginbottom said there have been no downgrades of Southern Co. ratings related specifically to nuclear.
"We don’t believe the SCANA downgrade will have any impact on us," he said. "Moody’s downgrade of SCANA was primarily a result of the size of the project to the size of the company."
Southern Nuclear, owned by Southern Co., operates the plant for its co-owners, including Georgia Power Co., which owns 45.7 percent of Vogtle. The remaining ownership is split among Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities.
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