Two U.S. utilities have referenced the 1600 MW design in their license applications for new reactors
In a long and winding, and expensive, path, GE Hitachi this week finally got what it came for from the NRC. The agency approved the design certification of the company’s 1600 MW Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR). The reactor features passive safety systems and a simpler design than its predecessor the 1350 MW ABWR which has a design legacy that goes back over four decades.
In the U.S. DTE is referencing the ESBWR for its license application for the FERMI 3 reactor in Michigan and Dominion is referencing it in its application for a new unit at North Anna in Virginia. Both licenses are expected to get NRC decisions in 2016, but construction dates have not been firmly committed to by either utility. Demand for electricity, consistent with continued economic recovery, and long-term prospects for natural gas prices, will affect the futures of both projects.
Entergy suspended its license applications for two ESBWRs in Mississippi and two more in Louisiana in 2009. Instead, it chose to uprate an existing plant in 2012. It increased the power rating of its Grand Gulf reactor to 1443 MW, a 19% jump, making it one of the biggest expansions of its kind in the U.S.
While GE Hitachi has explored international markets, only a potential site in India has any history in terms of development. It’s linked to plans for a heavy industry manufacturing center that would, among other things, make reactor components. Progress will depend on India’s nuclear liability law which currently makes it impossible for U.S. nuclear energy firms to do business there.
The path to design certification was rocky for both GE Hitachi and the NRC. Last January GE Hitachi settled, without any determination of liability, that it made false claims to the NRC about a nuclear reactor component for the ESBWR design.
According to Reuters, the NRC required that the design certification show that vibrations caused by the steam dryer will not result in damage to a nuclear plant.
Reuters reported that the Justice Dept. alleged, as a result of the NRC’s review, that GE Hitachi concealed known flaws in its analysis of the steam dryer, and falsely represented that it had properly analyzed the dryer, and that it had verified the accuracy of its modeling using reliable data.
The company paid the government $2.7 million as part of the settlement.
Other reactor designs not moving forward
The NRC’s action on the ESBWR is likely the last one that will take place for quite some time. According to a “Fact Box” of the status of other reactor designs compiled by Reuters, no action is scheduled by the NRC on the Areva EPR, a 1600 MW design nor for Mitsubishi’s APWR, a 1700 MW design.
At one time Areva had four utilities referencing its design, but they fell by the wayside due to a combination of the great recession and tumbling natural gas prices. A plan for expansion of the Comanche Peak site with two new units for a whopping 3400 MW crashed with the collapse of Luminant’s parent company’s debt structure.
As far as small modular reactors are concerned, the NRC notes that no SMR firms have yet submitted design review applications for either light water designs or fast reactors.
The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design received its safety certification from the NRC two years ago and is being used to build four reactors in the U.S. and four more in China. While the Chinese government does not rely on the NRC’s safety review, the U.S. process is considered to be a “gold standard” and opens the door for any reactor receiving it to access international markets. The U.K. uses a similar process called the Generic Design Review which has been criticized by reactor vendors for its excessive costs and length of time needed to complete the process.
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