New Reactor Model Faces Legal Challenge

Guest Blog | April 6, 2011 | Press Releases

Durham, NC – The Fukushima nuclear disaster has amplified a host of concerns about the reactor model chosen to lead a so-called U.S. nuclear renaissance, and industry pressure rushed the long-delayed, preliminary approval announced in February by federal regulators. That’s according to an alliance of public interest groups, which today began a legal challenge against the Westinghouse AP1000 by calling for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend its fast-track approval process until design problems are resolved and the lessons from Japan are fully and openly analyzed.

The alliance, called the AP1000 Oversight Group, today said industry pressure evidently caused the NRC to bypass testing of key aspects of the Westinghouse design despite persistent problems and a vigorous dissent by one of the agency’s longest serving experts. Dr. John Ma, the NRC’s lead structural engineer in charge of evaluating the reactor’s shield building, in November filed a formal nonconcurrence against approval of the building’s design, saying a new, non-standard concrete material is so brittle it could shatter “like a glass cup” under various natural or manmade impacts.

Other problems cited include the AP1000’s storage density for spent fuel pools, loss of offsite power, and a containment structure weaker than those at most U.S. reactors. Also included is a continuing dispute over the passive emergency cooling system, with NRC science advisors warning that potential clogging of recirculation filters could increase the risk of reactor core meltdown by a factor of 6,000.

The alliance also called for the NRC to revisit regional emergency planning based on long-running concerns about NRC’s 10-mile evacuation zone, noting the agency’s call for evacuation of U.S. citizens living within 50 miles from the Fukushima facility.

In a legal motion filed directly with the NRC’s five commissioners, the AP1000 Oversight Group said federal law requires suspension of the design approval process to ensure sufficient consideration of the concerns of Dr. Ma and other experts, along with new information to be gleaned from the continuing emergency in Japan that has spewed large amounts of radiation into the air, ground and ocean.

The alliance also cited a February concession by NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko that shield building standards should be improved later, and his statement that the building “is strong enough” for regions of the nation with low earthquake expectations. “There is no cause to rush the design certification for the AP1000,” said attorney John Runkle today. “Well before the emergency in Japan, serious shortcomings with the Westinghouse model had been identified. The events at Fukushima redouble the need for a careful and transparent review of the AP1000 relating to both safety and cost.”

The AP1000 is the design chosen for attempted licensing and construction by Duke Energy, Southern Company, Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy, TVA and SCANA. The Oversight Group also said countless design revisions create a regulatory morass that could mean attempts to build the AP1000 would repeat the economic catastrophe of the first generation of U.S. nuclear construction that led to bankruptcies, billions in cost overruns and cancellations.

Despite years of thorny design problems, the Department of Energy last year issued commitments for taxpayer-financed loans of $8.3 billion for two new AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. “We’ve observed an aggressive pursuit by Southern Company at every level to build new reactors at Plant Vogtle in spite of the risks that poses to ratepayers and taxpayers,” said Sara Barczak, a program director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a member of the AP1000 Oversight Group. “It’s essential that federal regulators take the time needed to carefully reassess the concerns raised over the AP1000 design and not yield to the nuclear industry’s unreasonable timelines.” Various versions of the Westinghouse AP1000 design were chosen by most Southern utilities as the least-expensive model – although litigation is likely because critics insist the initial lower price reflects safety compromises. Still, cost estimates continue rising even prior to licensing. The NRC plans to allow continuing design changes even after construction begins, a problem that has plagued French nuclear plant builders with massive cost overruns and delays at two European projects. “The Fukushima disaster points squarely toward numerous safety shortcuts made with the AP1000 design,” said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth, which is challenging licensing of the Westinghouse reactor in South Carolina. “Those shortcuts were attempts to keep the price tag down. But NRC Commissioners are required to heed the serious concerns raised by technical experts and by Fukushima – not to push this reactor along based on the industry’s time frame.”

The NRC announced its preliminary approval of the AP1000 design in February, required public comments be filed in 75 days, and directed NRC Staff to finalize the approval 30 days later. The alliance contends the review process was already truncated to accommodate the industry. They also say independent experts, in addition to being fully engaged with the Fukushima emergency, cannot adequately review thousands of pages of the AP1000 design because the Design Control Document keeps changing, with a 19th version planned for some unspecified date. “The industry has made an engineering hash out of their key goal of a standardized design,” added Jim Warren of NC WARN today. “If they proceed with plans for continuous design changes during construction, they’ll be reliving their 1980s nightmare of bankruptcies and 90 cancellations.”

You can download the legal motion here. # # # NC WARN (North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network) is a grassroots non-profit tackling the accelerating climate crisis by working for a swift North Carolina transition to energy efficiency and clean power. Visit on the Web.