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Combined Operating Licenses Provide Nuclear Options for the Future

July 2017

Given recent significant challenges to the economics of the nuclear generation industry, it makes sense that development of new nuclear generation is extremely limited. However, that does not mean that utilities are not keeping their options open for future nuclear development. Combined Operating Licenses (COLs) issued by the NRC provide power companies the option to defer potential nuclear plant development into the future. The COLs provide an “option value” to utilities as they make bets on the future energy market.

Key Details

  • COLs authorize nuclear power plants to construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site
    • They are valid for 40 years from the date of issuance and can be renewed for an additional 20 years
  • Licenses are design specific, locking the company into the reactor technology for which they are approved (e.g., AP1000, ABWR, ESBWR); Westinghouse’s bankruptcy may add uncertainty for those with licenses tied to the AP1000
  • The cost of pursuing a COL can range from $500M to more than $1B
  • Seven companies, including Southern Company and South Carolina Electric & Gas whose plants are already under construction, currently have COLs; FP&L has a COL under review


Utilities view these options as adding value to their customers, but quantifying that value is difficult given how long it takes to build a plant and the uncertainty of what the market may look like when the plant is operational. As long as natural gas prices stay low, beginning development of new nuclear generation will not make economic sense; however, natural gas markets have proven to be unpredictable, and an increase in the price of natural gas in the future could change the economic case for new nuclear generation. In addition, new legislation forcing reductions in carbon emissions could make nuclear more attractive. If resiliency becomes more valued in situations such as a natural gas shortage or lack of energy movement via transmission in high renewable areas, those utilities that have already been issued COLs will be rewarded.

More Information

Utility Dive: Hold ‘em or fold ‘em: New nuclear build permits hold ‘option value’ for 5 utilities

Utility Dive: NRC to issue license for Dominion’s new nuclear unit in Virginia

NRC: Combined License Applications for New Reactors

Charlotte Observer: Duke Energy wins license for S.C. nuclear plant it may never build

This report is part of the Nuclear Minute series. To view all featured Nuclear Minutes, please click here.

Additional Contributing Author: Frank Nelms

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