Admin and tech questions OK for nuclear plant construction

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a radical new reactor design on Thursday, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction on projects in South Carolina and Georgia.

The decision, a milestone in the much-delayed revival of plant construction sought by the nuclear industry, involves the Westinghouse AP1000, a 1,154-megawatt reactor with a so-called advanced passive design. It relies more heavily on forces like gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves and operator actions than other models do, in theory diminishing the probability of an accident.

Which says nothing about cost overruns, kickbacks for lobbyists and political graft in construction.

Two reactors are planned for the Southern Company’s plant near Augusta, Ga., and another two at the Summer plant of South Carolina Electric and Gas in Fairfield County, S.C.

In an unusual step, the commission waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant.

The decision also moves the industry toward the first test of a streamlined procedure in which the commission will issue a combined construction and operating license. Up to now reactors had to obtain a construction license and then undergo a long wait for an operating license, resulting in expensive delays in starting up reactors that had essentially been completed…

Among other design improvements, the Westinghouse AP1000 is supposed to shut down safely in the event of a loss of all electrical power, which is what befell the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami in March.

Westinghouse says that a combination of automatic systems and design features would keep the reactor safe for three days without human intervention and that its core could be kept from melting indefinitely with only minimal operator effort…

China is in advanced stages of constructing four units of an earlier version of the AP1000. The first unit is scheduled to go online in 2013, about three years before the first one would begin operating in the United States.

I am confident the quality control aspects of the design will be better than anything offered by the “old” Westinghouse. Oh – you didn’t know this is the “new” Westinghouse.

It’s owned by Toshiba.

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