Revival Of Atomic Energy Will Occur Without Many U.S. Manufacturers; NRC Will Have To Approve Foreign-Made Designs And Thousands Of Foreign-Made Components
BY RICHARD McCORMACK
The United States is on the verge of seeing a revival of nuclear power, but there is only one company left in the country able to provide certified industrial equipment for use in a new generation of reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects to receive seven license applications this year to build and operate new nuclear plants. Eleven additional applications are expected in 2008.
"To date, we have received letters of interest from several potential applicants, which indicate that the NRC may expect that first plant completion to be followed by as many as 30 others," NRC commissioner Peter Lyons told the International Conference on Structural Mechanics in Reactor Technology on Aug. 13. "We have even received part of the first combined operating license to be filed." It is the first time in 30 years the NRC has received an application to operate a new nuclear unit.
The NRC has reviewed early site permits at four locations and has issued early site permits for the Clinton and Grand Gulf nuclear plants. It is working on an early site permit for the North Anna station. It has certified four reactor designs, and three more are in various stages of consideration.
But the U.S. manufacturing and industrial capacity to support new construction "has been significantly diminished since the 1970s and 1980s," said Lyons. The number of U.S. companies certified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to produce nuclear accredited -- or "N-stamped" -- parts has dropped by almost a factor of five since 1980. The sole remaining manufacturer of large, heavy nuclear components that has received "N-stamp" certification is BWX Technology for its plants in Barberton, Ohio, and Mount Vernon, Ind.
"We face a challenge in ensuring the quality of the thousands of smaller parts and materials that are manufactured in other parts of the world" -- including pumps, valves, motors, fans, pipe "and even bolts," Lyons said. "The close scrutiny that regulatory agencies can enforce on major manufacturers to assure that quality components are produced is challenging to achieve for a vastly greater number of sub-vendors that supply parts and materials to the manufacturers."
Every part, component and system in a nuclear station needs to be assessed with regards the risks they pose if they fail in a harsh environment for which they are typically not designed. Most of these components are now made offshore, presenting an even greater challenge to regulators.
"It is particularly difficult to characterize failure modes of passive components that can experience beyond-design-basis conditions for which the failure data cannot be realistically obtained," said Lyons. "This community will play a significant role in establishing realistic assessments of passive component performance to enhance our progress toward risk-informed regulation."
New reactor designs such as high-temperature and liquid metal reactors will require new materials and different operational requirements. But many of these reactors are being developed in foreign countries with strong government-supported nuclear power research programs. It means U.S. regulators will have to develop codes and standards for foreign systems and materials "with an international perspective," said Lyons.
Further challenges remain with the current plants that are in operation. "Our experiences have shown that the understanding of aging and degradation mechanisms, timely detection through inspection technologies and implementation of effective remedial measures are vital to maintain safety throughout the operating life" of reactors, Lyons said. "Operating beyond the current 60-year, license-renewal periods may also be sought and would challenge our knowledge of aging phenomena." Most reactors were originally designed for a 30-year life.
Other major issues will need to be dealt with by regulators in order for the next generation of reactor to be widely adopted. Reactor system designs must take into account the potential for airplane impact. There are concerns about the sabotage of designs through the illicit sharing of technical information with people who want to cause harm. Natural hazards, such as what could occur in the event of a large tsunami similar to the one in the Indian Ocean in 2005, must be taken into consideration.
There are also "critical shortages" of experienced workers trained in nuclear systems and safety, not only to work in the reactors themselves but also within regulatory agencies, said Lyons. "The global growth in nuclear power compels all of us to focus on training the next generation of construction workers, electricians, welders, engineers, operators, managers and regulators," he noted.
The NRC is trying to increase its staff by 600 people to handle the increased workload of new plant applications and the growing issues around maintaining the aging reactors in operation. "We cannot hire people off the street and send them out to be nuclear plant regulators the next day," said Lyons. "Even when hiring people with substantial experience in industry, we have found that it takes six months to a year of training before they begin thinking and acting like regulators. For recent university graduates, it takes one to two years."
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