The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday it has authorized Southern Nuclear Operating Co. to load nuclear fuel and start operation at Vogtle Unit 3, “the first reactor to reach this point in the agency’s combined license process.”
The NRC’s decision on Vogtle Unit 3 comes on the heels of its move to issue its first design certification for a small modular reactor — one being developed by NuScale — and growing interest in nuclear energy as a means to achieve ambitious decarbonization goals.
"Today's finding by the NRC helps ensure we have met our commitment to building Vogtle 3 & 4 with the highest safety and quality standards," Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power, said in a statement.
The Vogtle plant in Waynesboro, Georgia, is jointly owned by Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power (which owns 45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corp. (30%), the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%), and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).
Southern Nuclear Operating Co. “recently informed the NRC that it has completed the inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria needed to show Vogtle Unit 3 can begin safe operations,” the NRC said.
“No further NRC findings are necessary in order for Southern Nuclear to load fuel or begin the startup sequence for the new unit,” Georgia Power noted.
“This is the first time we’ve authorized a reactor’s initial startup through our Part 52 licensing process,” Andrea Veil, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said in a statement. Part 52 is part of the NRC’s effort to improve the efficiency of the plant approval process by issuing a combined license that “provides a construction permit and an operating license with conditions for plant operation.”
The NRC’s decision takes Vogtle Unit 3 “out of the construction reactor oversight program and moves it into the operating reactor oversight process,” the commission said.
Vogtle Unit 4 remains under construction.
Vogtle units 3 and 4 are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over their initial budget. The total cost estimate for the two units is now more than $30 billion.
They are the only commercial reactors being built in the U.S. today, though several companies are pursuing smaller reactors, which are in various stages of development.
The latest version of the budget reconciliation package contains a 10-year production tax credit for existing nuclear plants that would add to various ongoing state and federal initiatives to support the continued operation of existing plants and build new advanced plants.
The provisions in the bill would be worth $30 billion to the U.S. nuclear industry, Bloomberg reported Aug. 3.
“Over the next several weeks ... nuclear technicians will continue work required to support loading fuel, which is already onsite, into the unit's reactor. This will be followed by several months of startup testing and operations,” Georgia Power said.
Southern Co. expects Unit 3 to begin operations at the end of the first quarter of 2023, CEO Tom Fanning said July 28 on the company’s second-quarter earnings call. The company aims to have Unit 4 start operating in December 2023, he added.