US Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification of GE Hitachi's Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor design for construction and operation in the US will provide a boost for the reactor in overseas markets, the company's CEO said Tuesday.
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The commission voted Tuesday to approve a final rule certifying the design as acceptable for operation in the US. NRC staff completed its technical safety review of the ESBWR in April.
GEH said in a statement that "the ESBWR employs advanced, true passive safety systems and a simplified design using natural circulation. These attributes result in the ability of the reactor to cool itself for more than seven days without operator intervention or AC power on or off site. Based on core damage frequency, the ESBWR is the world's safest approved nuclear reactor design."
Caroline Reda, president and CEO of GEH, said NRC "design certification will not only benefit our US customers, it marks a crucial step forward for the ESBWR's commercial advancement globally."
Jay Wileman, senior vice president of nuclear plant projects for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said in an interview Monday that the design certification would be "a great pivot point" for the company in talks with international reactor buyers.
Some countries, like Mexico and Taiwan, require "country of origin" design approval before a reactor can be considered in a tender, Wileman said.
Other countries, such as Finland, have regulators who are experienced at interacting with NRC, and would cooperate with the US regulator in licensing the ESBWR in their country, he said.
India has already identified a potential site for several ESBWRs, making it a top opportunity for GEH, Wileman said.
"One of the things [Nuclear Power Corporation of India] wanted from us was to have the design certification in place" before a formal deal to acquire the units could advance, Wileman said.
One obstacle to any deal to provide reactors to India remains that country's nuclear liability law, which unlike almost all other countries does not channel all liability for a nuclear accident to plant operators, raising concerns among some vendors that they could share in any liability claimes.
US and other vendors have said they are unlikely to sell reactors to India under the current liability regime there.
Wileman said he hopes new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be asked to address the issue during a planned visit later this month to the US.
In addition to India, GEH sees opportunities to sell the ESBWR in Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Vietnam, Wileman said.
The final design certification rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register by the end of the month, GEH said. The rule will become final 30 days after publication, NRC said in a statement Tuesday.
Specific projects to build and operate ESBWRs must also be licensed by NRC. DTE Electric is considering building an ESBWR at its Fermi plant in Michigan, and Dominion is considering building one at North Anna in Virginia.
Both companies have submitted and NRC is reviewing combined construction permit-operating license applications for those projects. NRC approvals of those licenses are expected in 2015 and 2016, respectively, GEH said.
GEH submitted the design certification application to NRC for the ESBWR in August 2005. NRC staff in January 2012 delayed submitting to the commission a rulemaking package to certify the design after discovering errors in the modeling of the reactor's steam dryer and the safety review was reopened.
Subsequently, the US Department of Justice alleged in January 2014 that "GE Hitachi concealed known flaws in its [ESBWR] steam dryer analysis and falsely represented [to NRC] that it had properly analyzed the steam dryer." GEH denied the allegations but settled the lawsuit in January, agreeing to pay a $2.7-million fine.
NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards in April told NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane that it had reviewed agency staff's "evaluation of the revised analysis procedure for the structural and functional integrity of the ESBWR steam dryer." ACRS said "the ESBWR steam dryer design is adequate, and the associated structural analysis and planned startup test program are acceptable. There is reasonable assurance that the ESBWR design can be constructed and operated without undue risk to the health and safety of the public."