The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently awarded the first-ever early site permit allowing construction of the first new nuclear power reactor in more than 30 years. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are assisting NRC with environmental and safety reviews, and document preparation required in evaluating and licensing new nuclear power generation stations in the United States. With this first approval issued, and a host of applications awaiting similar action during 2007, this surge may just be the beginning.
The approval marks a significant step in what some are calling the nuclear renaissance, said Van Ramsdell, a PNNL staff scientist. "In the past, we've supported NRC staff in conducting environmental reviews for renewing licenses at existing reactors, but more recently we've assisted in reviewing the first three early site permit applications."
Once awarded, the early site permits, or ESPs, allow operators to begin limited construction activities and site preparation work. The ESP process legally resolves siting and environmental issues and gives the ESP holder up to 20 years to apply for a permit to construct and operate a new reactor. As of yet, however, no announcement has been made regarding construction at this new reactor location - the Clinton Site - in central Illinois.
A number of factors, including recent legislation, have the NRC gearing up to handle increased interest in new reactors.
"Our staff is expecting up to 17 applications for new plants in the next couple of years, and this could lead to 31 or more new reactors if everything is approved," said NRC Director of Public Affairs Eliot Brenner. "We currently regulate 104 nuclear power stations nationwide in 31 states, and we're committed to ensuring their continued safe operation as well as managing the approval of new facilities in coming years."
With the nation's desire to minimize carbon dioxide emissions, a key contributor to global warming, "nuclear power appears to be gaining greater acceptance and is becoming a more attractive power source than in the past several decades," said Eva Eckert Hickey, a staff scientist at PNNL. "If the nation does experience a resurgence of nuclear power in coming years, PNNL will be prepared to assist NRC in permitting, siting and licensing the facilities."
PNNL has been identified as NRC principal contractor to support EPA environmental reviews and construction applications. PNNL performs several million dollars in regulatory and research support work for the NRC each year, employing between 50 and 60 environmental analysts and safety specialists.
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