The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has formed an internal group charged with preparing the agency to handle possible applications for licences to build new nuclear plants.

The NRC will staff up the ‘Future Licensing Project Organisation’ in phases, with a goal of having the new group fully functional by the end of September. NRC staff experienced in regulatory programmes, including the design certification process, will be assigned to the new group on a rotating basis.

“Several utilities and organizations have contacted the NRC to initiate discussions associated with possible construction of new nuclear plants in the United States,” the commission said. “These include Exelon’s request for a pre-application review of a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and Exelon’s stated intentions to submit an application to build the PBMR.” “Licencees have also indicated to the NRC that applications for early site permits could be submitted in the near future,” the commission added. The NRC established the early site permit process in 1992 as part of its new licensing process. It enables electric utilities, or others interested in building future nuclear plants, to seek NRC pre-certification of potential sites without making the financial commitment associated with applying for a construction permit/operating licence, or committing to a specific reactor design. Companies can ‘bank’ pre-certified sites for future use.

“While the schedules for these activities are not certain, NRC is gearing up to carry out its licensing responsibilities efficiently,” the commission said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute said it expects to see some applications to the NRC for early site permits, perhaps as early as next year. While the institute has declined to name potential applicants, the industry created a Task Force on New Nuclear Plant Deployment in September 2000 to examine the necessary conditions for new nuclear plant orders. The task force, which has met several times since last fall, is preparing a ‘business plan’ to chart a course for multiple reactor orders within the next several years. Members include several reactor manufacturers and major utilities, including Dominion Resources, Entergy, Exelon, Constellation Energy Group and Southern Comapny.

Meanwhile, vice president Dick Cheney, who heads a task force to develop a US strategic energy plan, has said on several occasions that new nuclear plants ought to be part of the US energy mix. The interagency task force is expected to issue a report in late spring.

“The president hasn’t made a decision yet but certainly his instructions to me are this is one of the areas he wants us to look at,” Cheney said in a recent TV interview. “We need to build 65 new power plants a year in this country for the next 20 years. My own view is that some of those ought to be nuclear and that’s the environmentally sound way to go.” In its initial phase, the new NRC group will establish a project management function for future licensing tasks. The tasks include: •Updating parts of NRC regulations.

•Reviewing the Westinghouse AP 1000 reactor design (for which an application for design certification is expected next year).

•Preparing for Pebble Bed reactor licensing review.

•Coordinating with the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation on Pebble Bed reactor pre-application issues.

•Environmental and siting project management.

•Other tasks, including interaction with interested stakeholders.
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