Misguided NRC Approves New SC Nuclear Reactors

Guest Blog | March 30, 2012 | Press Releases

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Just weeks after the one-year anniversary of the devastating nuclear disaster in Japan, today, in a 4-1 vote, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a final license for two new reactors at the site of South Carolina Electric & Gas’ (subsidiary of SCANA Corp.) currently operating V.C. Summer nuclear power plant. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko again was the sole dissenting vote as he was last month when the Commission approved the license for two new reactors for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in neighboring Georgia. The South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club along with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) believe the NRC has once again made a serious mistake by ignoring the lessons learned from the Japan Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“The aftermath of the unforeseen and unplanned for disaster at Fukushima has left an electric utility bankrupt, a nation in economic crisis, tens of thousands of citizens without homes or land, billions of dollars in liability and generations at risk of cancer and other devastating health problems,” said Susan Corbett, Chair of the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club. “And yet, even when the Chair of our nation’s highest nuclear regulatory agency questions the wisdom of rushing forward, utilities plunge ahead in states like Georgia and South Carolina without stopping to consider the alternatives to building new nuclear plants, or the consequences of their actions.”

The two-reactor project of SCE&G is located 25 miles north of Columbia, S.C. at the existing one-reactor V.C. Summer nuclear plant. The proposed reactors are of the flawed Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 design and a number of public interest groups have highlighted design problems, such as vulnerability to earthquakes for the passive cooling water tank perched on top of the reactor, but concerns were ignored and the design approved by the NRC in December 2011. Since then, nine organizations challenged the validity of the AP1000 design. A lawsuit was filed in February in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth challenged the V.C. Summer reactor project before the NRC. Beginning in 2008, Friends of the Earth led the fight before the South Carolina Public Service Commission (SC PSC) to license the project and challenged it all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which allowed the SC PSC approval to stand.

This is now just the second nuclear operating license approved in the U.S. in over 30 years. During the Vogtle affirmation session in February, Chairman Jaczko firmly dissented and said: “There are significant safety enhancements that have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there’s still more work ahead of us…Knowing this, I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

“We are concerned that at both the state and federal levels, regulators appear to be more worried about utilities’ and nuclear proponents’ timelines than what is in the best safety and financial interest of the public and consumers. In light of the tragic, still ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, all parties need to make sure that the lessons learned from Fukushima are fully understood and any and all necessary modifications are implemented if a utility ever moves forward in building a new reactor,” remarked Dr. Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The groups argue that the SCE&G and Vogtle proposals have proceeded because both state legislatures passed anti-consumer state laws that allow utilities to collect rates in advance of project completion to pay for financing costs, with no opportunity for refunds if the projects are cancelled. These schemes essentially shift the risk from big power companies and their shareholders onto the ratepayers—families and businesses. The South Carolina law, the Baseload Review Act, has already resulted in four, annual rate increases to pay for the nuclear project with fifth rate increase on the way.

“These two projects are likely the only new reactor projects to move forward in the U.S., indicating that the much-touted nuclear renaissance has fizzled in the face of falling prices of natural gas, lower electricity demand and the impacts of the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said, Tom Clements, Nonproliferation Policy Director with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, who is based in Columbia, S.C. and led the fight against approval of the SCE&G nuclear project when with the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. “We believe that many safety issues remain concerning the AP1000 design and that it is very vulnerable in the face of an earthquake, which could destroy the cooling system. Neither Vogtle nor the V.C. Summer project should move forward until the outstanding safety questions about the AP1000 design are resolved.”

SCE&G maintains that the “gross construction” cost of its 55% share of the two-reactor project would be approximately $6.3 billion. Thus, the total cost of the project would be around $11.45 billion. The state-owned utility, Santee Cooper, originally had a 45% share in the proposed two-reactor project but is working to reduce their commitment or to get out of the project altogether by seeking other partners. # # #