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Energy Daily: Southern Co. Seeking To Use China Test Data For New Nukes

March 21, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE

Southern Co. plans to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for waivers of license requirements in order to skip certain operational tests of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors it is building in Georgia and to substitute tests completed or underway on AP1000 units in China, a move that would save money and time for a project that is delayed and over budget, according to documents filed with the NRC.

Southern Nuclear Operating Co. notified NRC of its plans to seek the license amendments in a January 31 letter and discussed its plans with commission staff in more detail during a March 8 public meeting on the two AP1000 reactors under construction at its Alvin Vogtle nuclear plant.

In a written presentation for the meeting, Southern did not explicitly say why it was seeking to rely on Chinese testing, but suggested it met the spirit of NRC requirements for tests that are required only for the first projects to build new types of reactors, or in some cases for the first three such projects.

Those tests are designed “to further establish a unique phenomenological performance parameter of the AP1000 design features…that will not change from plant to plant, [and] are performed for the first plant only,” says Southern’s presentation. “Because of the standardization of the AP1000 design, these special tests (designated as first plant only tests) are not required on follow plants.”

Under Southern’s current NRC license to build and operate the new Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the testing is supposed to take place at the new plants. But under the new proposal, Southern would use testing already conducted or underway on AP1000 reactors under construction by Chinese utilities in Haiyang, Shandong province; and/or at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province. China’s State Nuclear Power Technology says it expects both Sanmen Units 1 and 2 to come on-line this year, and that Sanmen Unit 2 recently successfully completed pre-operational testing.

In its March 8 presentation, Southern identified the “pre-operational” tests for which it hopes to sub in Chinese results, and said it will later identify the operational tests for which it hopes to do so.

The pre-operational tests for which Southern will seek license amendments are a refueling water storage tank heatup test; reactor vessel internal vibration testing; “core makeup tank test heated recirculation tests”; and an automatic depressurization system blowdown test.

“[Southern Nuclear] would like to credit testing completed on the China AP1000 units,” the company said.

Asked why Southern was seeking the license amendment, a spokesman for Southern’s utility subsidiary Georgia Power said: “Everything we do regarding the construction of Vogtle 3 and 4 is to ensure that the units are completed safely and correctly, and license amendment requests are a regular part of the construction process. License amendment requests are submitted to the NRC based on construction needs and timeline.” Georgia Power co-owns two reactors at Vogtle and the two under construction.

“Southern Nuclear plans to submit a license amendment request with the NRC in the coming months to provide the technical basis for utilizing tests on the AP1000 units in China in order to reduce risks and gain efficiencies for the Vogtle 3 and 4 units without impacting public safety,” the spokesman said.

Southern’s presentation makes no mention of how its proposal might affect the budget and schedule of its new reactors project.

However, it comes at a time when the company and its partners are under heavy pressure keep a lid on costs and to stay on schedule. The project is already several billion dollars over-budget and years behind its initial schedule, and nearly collapsed following the March bankruptcy of Westinghouse, previously the project’s primary construction contractor. Westinghouse bowed out of the Georgia project and a similar new reactor effort in South Carolina after incurring several billions of dollars in losses on those efforts.

Owners of the South Carolina project scuttled it last July. Southern and its public power partners—Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power and the city of Dalton, Ga.—decided in August to continue. In December, Southern won permission from the Georgia Public Service Commission to do so, but the commission also clamped down on Georgia Power’s ability to earn from the project, which is now expected to cost roughly $25 billion.

Beginning in January 2020, Southern will earn a return on equity (ROE) of 8.3 percent on the project, down from 10 percent currently. A year later, the utility’s ROE will drop to 6 percent.

David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, suggested Southern’s plan to use the Chinese testing data would pose difficulties for NRC.

“I’d not want to be in the NRC reviewers’ shoes,” he said.

“If the plants were built on an assembly line, spot checking a reactor would shed insight on the quality of the other reactors rolling off the same assembly line,” said Lochbaum, a frequent critic of NRC and the nuclear industry. “But spot checking one reactor from an assembly line on a different continent built by a different owner and overseen by a different regulator might or might not shed light on the performance of the reactor off a different assembly line in a different country.”

To demonstrate that the Chinese tests results are appropriate for its project, Southern said its formal license amendment request will show the “adequacy” of China’s quality assurance program governing first-of-a-kind testing; the “acceptability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results; and the “applicability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results to Vogtle 3 & 4.”

Southern said it will break its license amendment request into two phases—covering pre-operational and then operational tests. The company said that strategy would enable it to submit the first request while certain “Chinese first-of-a-kind tests are being completed and/or vetted.”

Southern’s presentation suggests it has done significant work on its upcoming license amendment request, including completing its assessment of the quality assurance program for the Chinese testing programs and assessing China’s “test execution for pre-operation tests” at the Sanmen project.

The Sanmen and Haiyang projects are part of an aggressive nuclear power expansion in China, which is trying to match exploding demand for electricity with zero-emission nuclear rather than high carbon-emitting sources like coal. On March 7, China’s National Energy Administration said it expects five new reactors to come on-line this year, while construction begins on six to eight new ones.

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