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License for Duke nuclear plant delayed

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it expects to issue a license for Duke Energy’s proposed Lee Nuclear Station in South Carolina in 2016, three years later than planned.

In a July 22 letter, the federal agency said Duke’s decision last October to reposition the reactors on the Cherokee County, S.C., site accounted for the delay. So did budget limits at the NRC, which it said resulted in “substantial impacts on licensing activities.”

Additional ground stability tests, required in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, also contributed to the delay. Duke is scheduled to submit those findings in January 2014.

Duke spokesman Rick Rhodes said the company does not think the delay will change Duke’s plan to have the $11 billion, two-unit plant operating – if it decides to build it at all – in the mid-2020s. Duke announced the plant, which would be on a 4,000-acre site about 50 miles southwest of Charlotte, in 2006.

“If you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we will work with them but don’t see any urgent problem,” Rhodes said.

Duke notified the NRC last year that it would move the footprint of Lee’s two “nuclear islands” by about 60 feet. The new position would make construction easier because it has less rock, Rhodes said. The NRC said the move will also add to staff review time.

Duke plans to use the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, which is touted for its relative simplicity, safety and purportedly lower cost to build. The NRC certified the design, which will also be used at new nuclear plants under construction in South Carolina and Georgia, in 2011.

Plant was already delayed

Duke says it remains committed to nuclear power, which produces about half the electricity generated by Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves Charlotte. But Lee might never be built.

Low-priced natural gas has become the power plant fuel of choice, and demand for electricity has stagnated since the 2007-2008 recession. Duke has pushed back the opening date for Lee from 2016 to 2022-23 in its most recent planning forecast.

“It appears that the Lee reactor project could be slipping away due to a lack of commitment to the project by Duke and reduction in priority in the review of it by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said Tom Clements, an anti-nuclear activist for the Southeastern Nuclear Campaign in Columbia.

“Given the official delays revealed by the NRC and due to problems with the construction of the AP1000 reactors in South Carolina and Georgia, it will be no surprise if Duke continues to back away from the Lee reactor project.”

In May, Duke said it would shelve plans to add two new reactors to its Shearon Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh. It is still seeking an NRC license for a new plant in Levy County, Fla.

Duke has pursued partnerships with other utilities to build its next nuclear plant. In 2011 it signed a letter of intent to buy 5 percent to 10 percent of Santee Cooper’s stake in two new reactors under construction at the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station near Columbia.

Jacksonville, Fla.’s municipal utility also has an option to buy 5 to 20 percent of Lee’s output, if it is built.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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