Companies leading the construction of America's newest nuclear plants told federal regulators last week they are generally satisfied with the new process set up to license reactors.

A portion of the containment vessel is lowered into place at the V.C. Summer nuclear plant. Source: SCE&GFour Generation III Westinghouse AP1000 units are under construction at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina. To make regulatory approval of new nuclear plants less burdensome for utilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1989 introduced a new licensing process in the Code of Federal Regulations known as 10 CFR Part 52. The new combined construction and operating license allows plants to use reactor designs certified separately, whereas the NRC would wait until a plant was built to certify its design under the old process.

At a briefing Tuesday, an executive with Southern Co. overseeing the Vogtle project said the 10 CFR Part 52 process is a "significant improvement" over the old licensing regime. Nonetheless, he also said the NRC and licensees could do a better job handling the design changes that inevitably arise during a large project.

Both Southern and Scana subsidiary South Carolina Electric and Gas are closely watching Westinghouse's first AP1000 units coming together in Sanmen, China. Construction modifications to incorporate lessons learned there and at the American plants can still require a complex license amendment process to alter parts of the AP1000 design.

SCE&G also noted during the meeting that it has begun hiring personnel to run the new units at V.C. Summer, and 24 candidates have been selected for operator training. The first units at each plant are currently scheduled to come online in 2017.