Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tying the AP1000 up in knots at the NRC

New U.S. reactor projects could languish if anti-nuclear groups succeed in pushing ’ Fukushima “Concerns” to stall the AP1000 Certification

This is my updated coverage in Fuel Cycle Week for June 23, 2011, V10:N430 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

tie up in knotsThe four nuclear reactors most likely to be built in the U.S. and completed before 2020 in Georgia and South Carolina may never make it to the starting line if a coalition of anti-nuclear groups is able to tie up the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s design certification process in knots.

Southern’s Vogtle site and Scana’s V.C. Summer Station are each referencing twin Westinghouse 1,100 MW AP1000 reactors.

Right now the design control document (DCD) needed to complete the safety review for the AP1000 is pending with the NRC, but opponents have filed a petition to “terminate” all reactor reviews insisting that the agency should do nothing until the lessons learned from Fukushima are incorporated into the process.

John Runkle, an attorney based in Durham, N.C., who represents NC WARN and other anti-nuclear groups, told FCW they have asked for a new round of revisions and public comment to incorporate “lessons learned from Fukushima.”

What Runkle’s clients want for now is to stop the safety review process until Westinghouse updates its DCD with information that responds to issues such as loss of off-site power / station blackout and improvements to emergency planning to deal with multi-accident scenarios.

As a practical matter the groups are following a well worn path which has a signpost up ahead that says, in true Twilight Zone fashion, that the safest reactor is one that is never built.

Anti-nuclear groups have seized on the leverage potentially available to them regarding the AP1000. If they succeed in stalling or stopping it, future challenges to the NRC safety review process for the other pending designs are only a matter of time.

Dueling press releases

Dueling samauriNormally, these types of protests would bounce off the NRC like a soda can thrown against a reactor building. However, the process got a high profile on May 20 when NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko took the unusual step of publically complaining in an official agency press release that there were “additional technical issues” that needed to be resolved by the vendor.

Jaczko said the agency has “questions regarding the AP1000 shield building as well as peak accident pressures expected within the containment.” The chairman warned that any delay in addressing these issues could affect the schedule for certifying the design.

According to Runkle, the NRC has not formally responded to the petition. Also, the attorney said his groups have not had any direct contact with Chairman Jaczko for several years. Yet, while the timing of the petition filed by NC Warn and Jaczko’s press release are coincidentally close in time, there is no proof the NRC Chairman was acting due to NC Warn's petition.

The New York Times reported last March that these design issues have a long history of professional differences of opinion within the NRC. Westinghouse got its first scare from the regulators in October 2009. At that time the reactor vendor complained the NRC was moving the goal posts simultaneously demanding flexibility to roll with earthquakes and rigidity to deal with airplane crashes.

Westinghouse responded to Jacko's public complaint with its own press release June 13, which is the day it submitted revision 19 of the DCD. The reactor vendor said the information submitted provided “clarifications and minor corrections” that don’t affect safety and have “no material impact” on the AP1000 design.

Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the NRC, told FCW, “Westinghouse provided its additional AP1000 information, Rev. 19, on June 13th, and the staff continues to examine that submittal. The staff will meet with Westinghouse on the 30th; the staff could have comments at that point on when it might have a revised schedule for completing the design certification.”

UK nuclear safety regulator advances design review

strengthen a handOn June 28 the hand held by Westinghouse was substantially strengthened by a ruling from the UK nuclear safety regulator. That agency said the “Regulatory Issue” connected with the design of the company’s AP1000® nuclear plant had been lifted. This move clears a significant obstacle on the pathway towards design acceptance by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). (Full Text HSE closure letter)

Westinghouse Managing Director for the UK, Middle East and Egypt, Mike Tynan, said in a prepared statement:

“We recognize that there remains a considerable amount of work to be done on this and other technical aspects of the AP1000 design, but the lifting of the formal 'Regulatory Issue' today means that the safety inspectors recognize the fact we have made great progress in this area -- demonstrating to them that the building structure is robust enough to withstand any credible accident and remain safe.”

Purdue simulation tests

In the run up to the June 13 submission Westinghouse rolled out a press release in collaboration with Purdue University which completed large scale tests to verify the structural integrity of the shield building. The tests were funded by the reactor vendor.

ap1000At Purdue Amit H. Varma, Ph.D., a Professor of Civil Engineering and director of a testing center for nuclear power plants, said the tests involved components that were 40 feet long and three feet wide weighing 30 tons.

A special machine exerted a million pounds of force against them using hydraulic rams.

Special sensors captured strain data, which were used in computational models to evaluate the entire design. Scenarios were then run in the models to simulate the effects of tornados, aircraft impacts, and earthquakes.

Varma said the computational models demonstrated the performance of the AP1000 shield design when subjected to beyond design basis earthquakes. The results were incorporated into the Westinghouse DCD revisions submitted to U.S. regulators earlier this month.

Confidence building needed

The Purdue analysis is a major confidence builder for Westinghouse. Scott Shaw, a spokesman for Westinghouse, told FCW the changes to the DCD "are minor and do not change the design."

"We do not anticipate at this time any change to the NRC schedule to grant design certification amendment to the AP1000 later this year."

The final safety evaluation report, which leads to licensing reactors for construction and operation, is due this Fall. Schedule delays have huge dollar impacts which is why Westinghouse is pressing so hard to make Rev. 19 of the DCD the last one.

What’s at stake

There's more than just the four reactors at Vogtle and V.C. Summer riding on the outcome of the dueling press releases between Westinghouse and the NRC. There are plans for eight more AP1000 reactors – four in Florida, two in North Carolina, and two in South Carolina.

ap1000 cut awayThe next two AP1000s likely to be built are to be located near Miami at the Turkey Point power station operated by Florida Power & Light. Duke Energy recently said it is pushing ahead with its license application two AP1000s at the William States Lee III site in South Carolina. Complicating that project is the need for CWIP approval by the PUCs on both North and South Carolina.

Further out are plans by Progress Energy, now being merged with Duke, for two AP1000s at Levy County on Florida's west coast and two more at the Harris site in North Carolina. Plans for these reactors may change as a result of the merger of the two utilities.

The approval of the AP1000 design is turning into a high stakes outcome with much of the future of nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. over the next two decades riding on it. No other reactor vendor comes close.

Areva's EPR in Maryland needs a new investor and plans for new reactors at Comanche Peak in Texas as well as Fermi III in Michigan depend on the outcome of similar safety reviews on separate reactor designs. These are reactors designs by Mitsubishi for a 1,700 APWR and by G.E. Hitachi for a 1,500 MW ESBWR. Dominion in Virginia is making plans to pursue a license for a 1,500 MW version of the Mitsubishi reactor.

License certification is the door to construction. The costs of getting one for a new reactor can exceed $100 milllion. For utilities wanting to build new reactors, the costs of waiting increase every day.

Prior coverage on this blog

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