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Nuke industry calls for end of duplicate rules in reactor design review process

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Nuke industry calls for end of duplicate rules in reactor design review process

The nuclear energy industry's lobbying arm called on federal regulators to eliminate an "unnecessary and burdensome" layer in certifying applications for new reactor designs. In an Oct. 11 letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Energy Institute urged the scrapping of the Tier 2* information designations in the commission's design approval process because of the "additional burden and complexity" they introduce "without commensurate safety benefit."

The NEI suggested that ending the requirement for new reactors could bring immediate relief to the only nuclear project under construction in the U.S., at the Alvin W. Vogtle Nuclear Plant in Georgia.

"We support the industry's efforts to eliminate Tier 2* for future design certification applicants,” David Jones, vice president of technical compliance at Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power Co., a partner in the Vogtle project, said in a news release. The change "will improve industry and regulator focus on those aspects of construction which are truly safety-significant, without compromising NRC oversight of changes associated with a first-of-a-kind project."

The NRC introduced the new process for the certification, construction and operation of new reactors in 1989, and in 1991 it approved the use of two tiers of design-related information for new reactor designs. The agency later established separate procedures for approving any changes to that information, depending on how relevant to safety those changes were deemed. While significant safety-related changes under Tier 1 require NRC approval, changes under Tier 2 can be made prior to NRC approval via the "50.59-like" review process, which allows changes to license or application documentation as long as they do not compromise safety. In the early 1990s, the NRC introduced the extra Tier 2* designation to minimize the scope of Tier 1 information with the intention of giving applicants more flexibility in making changes. According to the NEI, the level of effort is nearly identical for both Tier 1 and Tier 2* changes because both require amendments to existing combined operating licenses or applications.

In the letter, NEI's Interim Chief Nuclear Officer Joseph Pollock asserted that approximately 30% of license amendment requests made over five years for Vogtle and the now-canceled V.C. Summer expansion project in South Carolina were required solely because of changes to Tier 2* information.

"Of those changes, approximately 90% would not have required an amendment if a '50.59-like' change process could be applied," explained Pollock. "The remainder would have required a license amendment request under the '50.59-like' process, i.e., the Tier 2* designation was duplicative and unnecessary."

In a July 24 internal memorandum, NRC staff suggested reducing the use of the Tier 2* designation, rather than abandoning it.