An overview of nuclear power plant siting and licensing
Studies on nuclear power plant siting and licensing are expensive and complex undertakings requiring critical geologic input for the planning, design, and construction phases. Commercial production of nuclear power in the United States began in 1959, in an era when geologic hazards were seemingly not as critical as they are today to designers, constructors, and regulatory agencies. By the early 1970s, however, siting work required a more sophisticated appreciation of geologic hazards such as earthquake effects, subsidence, slope stability, and foundation integrity. These concerns were formalized by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1971 in its "Seismic and Geologic Siting Criteria for Nuclear Power Plants" and in 1972 in the Standard Format.
The required Federal license to construct and operate nuclear power plants is awarded through a careful and demanding process. Construction permits are not granted until high levels of assurance are attained as to suitability of the site; the construction process must be observed and monitored. Electric utility applicants for construction permits and operating licenses organize large teams of scientific and technical personnel to compile the Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) required for each nuclear power plant. Geologists constitute a key part of these teams, producing site-specific and regional assessments that are accurate enough to withstand scrutiny and timely enough to avoid costly delays in the programmed design-and-construct sequence.
Management techniques must be applied to coordinate data-collection efforts and timely release of findings. As soon as a complete set of findings is compiled to the specifications of the Standard Format, the PSAR is accepted for review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). These reports become complex documents and include the responses to subsequent review questions which are included as amendments. The Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR) includes supplementary reports dealing with geologic findings revealed during construction.
Many of the key geologic issues identified in siting and licensing are often analogous to those problems that confront researchers in the geological sciences today, such as evaluation of remote imagery, proof of subsurface stratigraphic continuity, evaluation of potential fault activity, a thorough assessment of ground-water conditions at each site, and subsidence potential including evaluation of dissolution of foundation material.
The overriding goal of each applicant utility is the construction of a safe power plant; however, the future of the industry in the United States is dependent on its ability to maintain construction schedules while staying within allotted budgets. Lessons learned from previous sitings have pointed out that effective management and judgment, efficient communication, and coordination contribute to timely and cost-efficient license studies.