Duke Energy’s plans to build a new nuclear power station in the Upstate have been delayed by federal regulators who say limited resources and changes to the construction plans require more time.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Duke in a letter that a final hearing on plans to build two reactors at the W.S. Lee site outside Gaffney would have to wait until 2016.
The original target for a final hearing had been this past March.
Duke spokesman Rick Rhodes said Wednesday the company is “disappointed” in the delay but understands the NRC’s need to follow procedures that ensure the plant would be safe.
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“By all means, we haven’t backed away,” Rhodes said. “We absolutely continue to pursue new nuclear generation in our generation mix.”
Nuclear watchdogs say the delay shows that Duke isn’t sure about the future of nuclear power and construction of a plant the company has never said for sure it will complete.
“If there was a deeper commitment to the project, the license review would be proceeding at a much faster pace,” said Tom Clements, Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
Through 2012, Duke has spent nearly $320 million in “pre-construction costs” to develop the nuclear project.
Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace, said the largest energy company in the U.S. should “step away from the abyss of new nuclear construction” that he said ultimately costs electricity consumers as alternate forms of energy become available.
“The latest delay in Duke Energy’s bid to build a nuclear plant in South Carolina puts its embattled nuclear ambitions even further behind cost and over budget,” Riccio said.
The largest chunk of the cost to develop the project has been the $84.8 million spent through 2012 on “NRC reviewing and hearing fees,” according to a filing with the South Carolina Public Service Commission, which ultimately governs rate increases.
The company has committed to pursuing a license to build the two pressurized water reactors in Cherokee County but hasn’t committed to the reactors’ completion.
The company must conduct an annual review of electricity needs and has to weigh NRC requirements and the regulatory environment of the day, Rhodes said.
“It’s always been that the plant was proposed,” Rhodes said. “We’ve always had to have it in a proposed state because there are other factors that say whether we can build the plant.”
In its letter informing Duke of its delay, the NRC cited budget cuts that have limited agency resources to review projects.
In the letter, the agency pointed to Duke’s plans to submit new seismic activity information in 2014, which were required after Japan’s nuclear disaster wrought by an earthquake-induced tsunami in 2011.
Also, last year Duke informed the NRC that it had amended its project to move the building housing the two reactors 66 feet to make excavation easier.
Because of limited resources, the NRC said, “The failure of any applicant to meet a response date, or analysis results requiring more review than estimated, has the potential to affect the schedule for that applicant as well.”
The NRC said it would review and adjust schedules “if the budgetary situation and resource availability in critical areas improves.”