The Licensing Process for a New Nuclear Reactor

Early Site Permit

An Early Site Permit, or ESP, essentially allows a specific location to be approved for building a new nuclear power plant without a company actually committing to building a reactor or using any specific reactor design. Instead, the site is approved for a range of designs. Once an ESP is issued, there are many environmental and public health and safety issues that cannot be challenged for the duration of the permit, usually 20 years with the option of at least a 20-year extension. A utility company is granted permission to apply for a construction and operation license (COL) at any point during that time without having to revisit site-specific factors and contentions, even in light of new information that may raise additional safety concerns.

Public Citizen and other groups oppose the ESP process based on the fact that it artificially segments and disjoints the process of designing and approving a specific reactor for a specific site and decreases the opportunity for the public and surrounding communities to have meaningful involvement in decisions affecting their health and safety. Deadlines for filing contentions are unreasonably short and tend to pass before most concerned people even become aware of the situation. Many factors that should logically be included in such a permit, such as security and waste issues, are ignored completely. Other issues, such as the need for additional power generating capacity in that geographic area, the impact a new nuclear plant in that area will have on the cost of power, and alternative sources of power generation for that area, are not even considered. Instead, they are postponed until a later stage called the Combined Construction and Operating License (COL), the other side of the new reactor coin.



Combined Construction and Operating License

The Combined Construction and Operating License, or COL, is part of a new, “streamlined” process designed to encourage construction of new nuclear power plants by heavily subsidizing nuclear owners and removing opportunities for the public to raise important safety concerns. By combining what was previously two steps-construction and operation-there is no chance for the public to raise concerns about problems with the actual construction process after it begins. By the time the shovel hits the dirt, the reactor is already approved to start up.

Under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Power 2010 program, half the cost of applying for the COL will be paid by the DOE. Initial estimates for the total cost to DOE for both the COL and the similarly-financed Early Site Permit together were somewhere between $42 million and $87 million per plant. However, in May 2005 it was announced that a business consortium will receive $260 million in taxpayer funds from DOE to fund half the cost of preparing two COL applications and having one reviewed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Two other consortia have also asked and been approved for federal subsidies.