NRG Energy files the first nuclear power building permit since 1978

Posted on September 25, 2007

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Today, NRG Energy of Princeton, New Jersey, will file the first permit to build a new nuclear reactor in 29 years. Not only that, but the permit actually covers two new reactors located at the Bay City, Texas nuclear plant. And by filing first, NRG Energy gets to partake of the maximum benefits from loan guarantees, risk insurance, and tax credits available under the nuclear power provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (fact sheet from the Nuclear Energy Institute). Considering that these benefits could guarantee loans of up to 80% of the cost of the project, up to $125 million in tax credits per year for the first 8 years of operation, and 100% coverage of all costs due to delays in licensing, legal fees, construction delays, etc. for the first two reactors, getting started ASAP makes a lot of economic sense for NRG Energy.

Now for some of the more interesting details. The reactor that NRG wants to use is known as an advanced boiling water reactor, a Generation 3 reactor design that utilizes screw drives for the control rods for improved control of the reaction level (and thus the power level) over existing U.S. reactors, uses nuclear-grade, low carbon, cobalt-free steel to reduce the long term radioactivity of the reactor vessel and increase it’s strength, internal coolant circulation pumps that reduce the number of pipes and welds (and thus the amount of radiation leakage out of the reactor itself), fault tolerant instrumentation, negative air pressure containment that directs any small leakage to a gas treatment system (negative pressure is used to contain biological agents at ultra-secure disease research centers too), and automated servicing to reduce the amount of manual work and thus radiation exposure.

If you look closely at the reactor image from GE Energy, one thing you’ll notice is this type of reactor doesn’t have is a passive safety system, i.e. a system that requires you break the laws of physics for it to melt down. However, the control rods drive system has triple-redundant backup diesel generators. But the reactor’s safety features have been designed so that the reactor will be safe for 72 hours without controller intervention even if something goes terribly wrong. And given that there are already four reactors operating in Japan, the first operating since 1996, another three under construction in Taiwan and Japan, and nine more planned in Japan alone, the common design will keep the construction costs reasonable and delays to a minimum.

Unfortunately, NRG and it’s competitors may face a significant new hurdle. Because it’s been so long since the last nuclear reactor permit has been issued, the NRC doesn’t have enough experienced people to effectively and efficiently process new permit requests. So the NCR contracted out some of this function to Information Systems Laboratories, a company that does nuclear safety modeling and analysis along with providing other services to state and federal authorities and multinational companies. But according to Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), there’s a chance that the NRC’s contract to ISL may violate the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998. The FAIR Act requires that the federal government not contract out “inherently governmental functions”. Unfortunately, given the definition of what an inherently governmental function is, and what the exclusions include, it may take a court to make the ultimate decision:

(B) Functions included.–The term includes activities that require either the exercise of discretion in applying Federal Government authority or the making of value judgments in making decisions for the Federal Government, including judgments relating to monetary transactions and entitlements. An inherently governmental function involves, among other things, the interpretation and execution of the laws of the United States so as–
(i) to bind the United States to take or not to take some action by contract, policy, regulation, authorization, order, or otherwise;
(ii) to determine, protect, and advance United States economic, political, territorial, property, or other interests by military or diplomatic action, civil or criminal judicial proceedings, contract management, or otherwise;
(iii) to significantly affect the life, liberty, or property of private persons;
(iv) to commission, appoint, direct, or control officers or employees of the United States; or
(v) to exert ultimate control over the acquisition, use, or disposition of the property, real or personal, tangible or intangible, of the United States, including the collection, control, or disbursement of appropriated and other Federal funds.

(C) Functions excluded.–The term does not normally include–
(i) gathering information for or providing advice, opinions, recommendations, or ideas to Federal Government officials; or
(ii) any function that is primarily ministerial and internal in nature (such as building security, mail operations, operation of cafeterias, housekeeping, facilities operations and maintenance, warehouse operations, motor vehicle fleet management operations, or other routine electrical or mechanical services).

Hopefully both the NRC, the nuclear power industry, and Congress will chart a middle ground here, one that permits the NRC to use a contractor to perform the “gathering information for or providing advice, opinions, recommendations, or ideas to Federal Government officials” but that requires the NRC to carefully vet the information and make the ultimate decision. Time will tell.

On an unrelated note, though – I don’t see an exclusion in the FAIR Act of 1998 for the protection of State Department officials by Blackwater mercenaries. Last I heard security wasn’t a “ministerial and internal” function of government….

Other sources not linked directly above:
Bloomberg.com – NRG Files First Full Application for U.S. Reactor (Update3)
NYTimes.com -Approval Is Sought to Build Two Reactors in Texas
CNNMoney – US Rep: NRC Outsourcing Nuclear Permitting May Be Illegal

[Crossposted: The Daedalnexus]

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