AP1000 – the NRC asks that it be proved “to its satisfaction” that Westinghouse & Toshiba have “. . . completely documented the adequacy of the design.”

(postcript added June 13, 2011; original post May 22, 2011)  By now it is all over the news — if you know where to look.  In a statement giving a different picture than those implied by his statements of just a few weeks ago, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now says approval of the AP1000 reactor might not be imminent.  The Wall Street Journal article on it is here:

“U.S. Nuclear Agency Has ‘Technical Issues’ With Westinghouse Reactor”

News articles popped up other places, too:  The New York Times.  Salon.  Bloomberg. The website of Friends of the Earth, a group that has filed a lawsuit against the NRC over the AP1000 (http://www.foe.org/ap1000-nuclear-reactor-design-grave-danger).  Local Pittsburgh papers.  Business Week.  Investor blogs.   Reuters (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/20/nuclear-westinghouse-idUSN2026921820110520).   Associated Press. Then hundreds of newspapers, large and small, carried the AP story.

The NRC’s press release with Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s statement came out on Friday, too late for the news articles to appear in Friday’s morning paper (yet perhaps early enough that it will be considered old news by Monday morning).  Here it is, one page packed with import:

NRC GREGORY B. JACZKO’S STATEMENT ON AP1000 REVIEW ISSUES http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/news/2011/11-087.pdf

It begins:  “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s efforts to confirm its review of Westinghouse’s amended AP1000 reactor design have resulted in the uncovering of additional technical issues.”  The press release doesn’t get more specific than to mention “questions regarding the AP1000’s shield building [the outermost cylindrical portion, which is made of concrete] as well as the peak accident pressures within containment.”

This matters a lot — in over 8 billion dollars of loan guarantees —  to those involved in the new nuclear power plant Southern Company is planning to build in Georgia (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b5339e50-1b63-11df-838f-00144feab49a.html#axzz1N2uqHxBF).   The loan guarantee was approved for Georgia’s Vogtle project over a year ago, but it’s contingent on the NRC approving the AP1000 design.  Ground has been broken in preparing the site already.

Without a loan guarantee, Wall Street isn’t likely to loan utilities money for new nuclear plant construction.   With a loan guarantee . . . without going into details here, I think it is fair to say that the terms of the federal loan guarantee were designed such that the utilities are under the impression that they are pretty much guaranteed that, once they get the regulatory go ahead and have been granted the federal loan guarantee, then, no matter what goes wrong with the plant construction, they’ll still get that money.  If you work out various scenarios, you’ll find that they can spend what the bank lends them, and the bankers will get back whatever they lent from US taxpayers, via the loan guarantee.  The whole idea behind writing the terms of the loan guarantee was that there be incentive to rush to be the first to get a license to build a nuclear plant, and that there be very little downside for the bankers involved in funding it.

So far, only the first utilities in line get such a deal — which has set up a competition among utilities as to how quickly they could get their license applications through the NRC. (This seems to be the new version of what “market-driven” investment means.)

For the people counting on getting their share of that 8+ billon, NRC approval of the vendor design they’ve selected takes on a certain urgency.  I think anyone with the slightest knowledge of human behavior has to question whether that kind of financial pressure can really be kept from affecting the integrity of the regulatory review process.

In Jaczko’s statement of last Friday, he said that his agency would determine the impact on schedule after his staff examined Westinghouse’s response to its requests for more information.  He went on to say:

“The agency has made it clear to Westinghouse that it must prove to our satisfaction that the company has appropriately and completely documented the adequacy of the design.”

OK, very good.  That is what regulators ought to do.   But is this just about a schedule delay of the inevitable?

I don’t know.  Interpretations of the import of Jackzko’s statement varied widely.    It’s an event of iconic significance, as Southern’s success in building two reactors at Vogtle would be widely regarded as a signal of the rise of the US nuclear renaissance, Southern’s failure to do so a sign of the folly and failure of the nuclear option in the US.  In the public statements they released, the Friends of the Earth considered it significant and Westinghouse shrugged it off.

The two aspects of the design Jaczko mentioned — the shield building and the peak containment pressure — are important to safety.  That’s all he mentioned, and he was not specific about what the issues were.

Based on news stories citing NRC staffer reports, though,  it appears that fresh attention is being given to the effect of temperature differentials on the concrete shield building, and to the application of the quality assurance procedures used in producing the design.  I’ve noted these as concerns I had in my earlier post on the AP1000.  If these reports are correct, that’s a very welcome sign.

Postscript added June 13, 2011:  The possibility of delay due to questions about the design arising during the licensing and permitting process was already a news item in industry publications in mid-2010.  Platt’s Inside NRC lead article in its August 30, 2010 issue (Vol. 32, No. 18) was entitled “AP1000, EPR may miss mid-2011 design approval in UK” and noted that it appeared likely that the mid-2011 target date for final approval might be missed, as Westinghouse especially had “a lot of work to do.”  The article was discussing the UK process, but mentions of “a lack of design information” hinted that the US process might be impacted by the factors delaying the UK approval as well.  Scientific American featured an article entitled “Safety Concerns Delay Approval of First U. S. Nuclear Reactor in Decades” by Robynne Boyd last July (July 30, 2010 online at  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=slow-reactor-safety ).  So this most recent delay isn’t a case of protest groups impacting the schedule, as some advocates of rapid new nuclear build have interpreted it to be.

When I taught a course on nuclear issues in America at Duke, we were fortunate to have John Ahearne visit for a discussion with the class.  He told us that, when he was Chairman of the NRC, he heard lots of complaints that protest groups were delaying licensing and permitting of plants, and running up the cost of new nuclear plants as a result.  So he had an investigation done.  But not one single plant could be found on which that was true;  not a single new nuclear plant had been delayed due to protest or watchdog groups holding up the process.  It was a case of faulty reasoning, a classic fallacy called  post hoc ergo propter hoc  (“after this, therefore because of this”).  I suspect we may see a replay of that rhetoric.

The Vogtle project has an appointed Construction Monitor (currently filled by William Jacobs Jr.)  His latest report already warns about potential cost overruns, none of which has anything to do with a delay requested by watchdog or protest groups, according to this article in NuclearStreet: “Report Warns of Potential Cost Overruns at New Vogtle Reactors”, at  http://nuclearstreet.com/nuclear_power_industry_news/b/nuclear_power_news/archive/2011/06/13/report-warns-of-potential-cost-overruns-at-new-vogtle-reactors-061301.aspx

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