By Matthew L. Wald
WASHINGTON — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a radical new reactor design on Thursday, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction on projects in South Carolina and Georgia.
The decision, a milestone in the much-delayed revival of plant construction sought by the nuclear industry, involves the Westinghouse AP1000, a 1,154-megawatt reactor with a so-called advanced passive design. It relies more heavily on forces like gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves and operator actions than other models do, in theory diminishing the probability of an accident.
Two reactors are planned for the Southern Company’s plant near Augusta, Ga., and another two at the Summer plant of South Carolina Electric and Gas in Fairfield County, S.C.
In an unusual step, the commission waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant.
The decision also moves the industry toward the first test of a streamlined procedure in which the commission will issue a combined construction and operating license. Up to now reactors had to obtain a construction license and then undergo a long wait for an operating license, resulting in expensive delays in starting up reactors that had essentially been completed.