To paraphrase the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Merry Effin’ Christmas.
In a news dump that came a day early (because who really wants to dump on Christmas-Eve Eve?), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a pair of moves Thursday that could have significant consequences for America’s nuclear industry–and all the people who have to live with it.
First, the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design got the big thumbs up:
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a radical new reactor design on Thursday, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction on projects in South Carolina and Georgia.
Whoa–let’s stop it there for a sec. . . . A “radical new reactor design?” Somebody’s being a good little scribe this Christmas. As previously discussed, there is nothing radical about the AP1000–it’s a tweak on the generations-old pressurized water reactor design that theoretically would allow the core to avoid a meltdown in the event of a total loss of AC power. . . .
Well, for 72 hours, anyway.
After that, the manufacturer–in reality the Japanese owner of Westinghouse, Toshiba–says something about it taking only “minimal operator effort” to avert disaster.
Keep in mind that the AP1000 was designed well before the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that started the ongoing Fukushima disaster, but this approval, of course, comes well after.
Designers of the AP1000 assert that gravity and convection will serve to keep reactor cooling functioning even if systems are disabled as they were at Fukushima. That assertion is predicated on the storyline that the Daiichi plant’s safety systems survived the massive quake, and only ran into trouble when the tsunami flooded and disabled the diesel backup generators that powered cooling systems for the reactors and the spent fuel pools.
That is a capricious assertion for two very disturbing reasons:
First, it is by no means established fact that Fukushima’s cooling systems survived the earthquake undamaged. Reports from the Japanese government and TEPCO, Fukushima Daiichi’s owner-operator, have gone back and forth on this matter. It would be naturally beneficial to nuclear advocates to go with the story that the quake did nothing to the reactor and its safety systems. But given the visible damage to the plant and the surrounding area, and given the profound leaking of cooling water that has continued seemingly unabated from the earliest days of the disaster, it is hard to believe all pipes, tubes, couplings, fittings, vents and valves–not to mention the containment vessels and tanks themselves–remained watertight after the massive temblor.
Second, the earthquake worthiness of the AP1000, itself, has been officially questioned by senior NRC officials and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), the Ranking Member of the House committee charged with overseeing nuclear regulation:
Just days before the earthquake in Japan, Rep. Markey wrote a letter to the NRC urging the Commission not to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 design until serious safety concerns were addressed. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff, Dr. John Ma, had warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft. The shield building has the critical safety function of preventing damage to the reactor that could cause fuel meltdowns and radiation releases.
Note, Dr. Ma has been with the NRC since its inception, and this was the first non-concurrence dissent of his career. The NRC acknowledged this concern and asked Westinghouse for a response. . . and the response was, essentially, “nah-ah.” A response that has now proven good enough for the agency tasked with assuring the safety of America’s nuclear reactors.
So, it theoretically would be great if the AP1000 were able to survive without melting down through three days without electrical power–though it should be noted that three days wouldn’t have really saved Fukushima’s bacon (even if it had remained intact) given the devastation to the region’s infrastructure. But that semi-sunny selling point on the AP1000 assumes that there would still be a reactor containment building to cool.
It is the kind of “what could possibly go wrong” assumption that has tripped up nuclear power generation in large and small ways throughout its history–and it is stunning that, especially in the wake of the Japanese crisis, this cavalier attitude continues.
But perhaps it is not so surprising when we consider just why the AP1000 has such a novel/brittle containment building: it is supposedly cheaper to build.
The AP1000 is slated to have a smaller footprint with fewer components, but still use off-the-shelf, previous-generation parts. Most notably, the design uses under a fifth the amount of concrete and rebar, compared with existing PWRs.
Not convinced that economics is the real driving force behind this “innovation?” Take a look at the other action the NRC announced Thursday:
In an unusual step, the commission waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant.
The decision also moves the industry toward the first test of a streamlined procedure in which the commission will issue a combined construction and operating license. Up to now reactors had to obtain a construction license and then undergo a long wait for an operating license, resulting in expensive delays in starting up reactors that had essentially been completed.
The approval of a shaky design is disturbing, but the approval of a process that will allow that design to move to completion and operation with far fewer pauses to test safety is unconscionable. (And the fact that this happening because of bottom-line concerns is criminal.) As the distinguished gentleman from Massachusetts put it:
“Today, the NRC has presented its holiday gifts to the nuclear industry,” said Rep. Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Instead of doing all they should to protect nuclear reactors against seismically-induced ground acceleration, these Commissioners voted to approve the acceleration of reactor construction. While they continue to slow walk the implementation of recommendations of the NRC professional staff’s Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima, they have fast-tracked construction of a reactor whose shield building could ‘shatter like a glass cup’ if impacted by an earthquake or other natural or man-made impact.”
And it is important to mention that the approval of this accelerated process came over the objections of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko–who just last week faced both House and Senate panels questioning his leadership style–but the certification of the AP1000 design did not. In fact, at the same time news of the Jaczko witch hunt was blocking out the sun, the NRC chair was actually working with other commissioners–the ones who sent a letter to the White House saying Jaczko was impossible to work with–to secure the unanimous OK for the new reactor.
It is not the first time those wary of a nuclear renaissance had been presented with the dilemma of both praising and cursing Jaczko. In fact, just last week, on December 15, Jaczko was the only vote in support of a move to make all recommendations of the post-Fukushima Near-Term Task Force report mandatory for the “adequate protection” of nuclear power plants. The four other NRC commissioners asserted that it was “premature” to make such a rule–and so Fukushima’s lessons continue to go unlearned, over Jaczko’s protestations and lonely protest vote.
But it is just this sort of nightmare-inducing nuclear mollycoddling that should convince Jaczko that the process he has often praised is deeply flawed. He cannot advocate for new safety rules one week and then grant license to the industry that works so hard against those rules the next. Not if he really wants change; not if he really cares about public safety.