Contact: Jim Warren
June 24, 2008
Nuke Revival Hits Quicksand at Harris, Other Plants
Delays, cost overruns loom as NRC concedes new designs are years from completion
DURHAM, NC – Federal regulators now admit that designs for new nuclear power plants are years from completion and the problem is delaying their review of license applications. Today, NC WARN filed a legal motion with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying public interest groups also cannot review “moving target” applications, and insisting the 60-day timeframe for contesting the Shearon Harris license be suspended until the highly complex application is complete.
The nuclear power industry pinned its hopes for new plants largely on claims – now discredited – that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had “pre-certified” designs by Westinghouse and other manufacturers several years ago. Power companies hoped then to slightly alter the generic blueprints as needed for specific sites. Such standardization is considered crucial to avoiding the cascading mistakes, delays and cost overruns during licensing and construction that forced scores of midstream cancellations in the 1980s.
But this month, the NRC told owners of the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland that the agency must delay its license review until certification of the Areva design is complete. NRC also sent a list of site-specific application shortcomings “that introduce uncertainty into the review schedule.” And at a June 10th NRC meeting near the Harris plant, agency officials admitted to watchdog group NC WARN that the Westinghouse design – declared “certified” in December 2005 but now in its 16th revision – would not be complete until sometime in 2011.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Lochbaum is a nuclear safety engineer who worked in the industry for 17 years and has reviewed new plant designs. In an affidavit supporting NC WARN’s motion, he wrote: “In my opinion, it is impossible to conduct a meaningful technical and safety review of the Harris [application] without knowing what the final certified design will be.”
Earlier this year, Progress Energy, Duke Energy, Southern Company and others submitted Westinghouse’s technical designs as the major component of their applications for new plants. But of the 172 interconnected Westinghouse documents (totaling over 6,500 pages), only 21 have been certified by the NRC. And most of those rely on systems integral to the remaining, unapproved documents, which include the reactor building, control room, cooling systems, engineering designs, and plant-wide alarm systems, piping and conduits.
The NRC is attempting to review and certify plant designs separately from the applications themselves, which compounds the challenge for agency staff to maintain an anticipated three-year timeline. The NC WARN motion cites evidence that the agency anticipates additional modifications as the NRC staff conducts its review – likely delaying each project. The group also argues that the lack of a completed design means the Harris application cannot be deemed complete according to federal law.
Attorney John Runkle wrote that because the shortcomings are significant enough to delay the NRC staff’s entire safety review and environmental review, including an assessment of design basis and severe accidents, it seems a totally unfair and unjustified burden on NC WARN and similar parties to be required to prepare detailed technical contentions by August 4th.
That’s the filing deadline, under NRC’s 60-day rule, for anyone seeking an evidentiary hearing regarding the Harris application. “Delaying the staff’s review until the application is complete makes for a more efficient review” and would limit litigation, Runkle told NRC.
“The nuclear revival is now a special-order fiasco,” said NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren. “The industry has rushed ahead with half-baked applications — lining up for taxpayer subsidies during the Bush administration — even as the manufacturers keep trying to redesign the plants to offset soaring cost estimates.”
One of those modifications might relate to high-risk storage of used reactor fuel, which the National Academy of Scientists warned against in 2005. In its motion, NC WARN asked the NRC if earlier Westinghouse designs contained larger, but more expensive, cooling pools that would allow spent fuel to be packed less densely, thus reducing the risk of horrific nuclear fires.
Warren lauded NRC staff for admitting they need more time at Calvert Cliffs. “We expect NRC to slow down and do the job right at all the plants, and with so much taxpayer money and safety at stake, we’re counting on Congress to make sure they do,” he said.
He added that rate commissioners in both North and South Carolina now have egg on their faces after recently pre-approving Duke Energy’s request for $230 million in “preconstruction” expenses for two Westinghouse AP1000’s at its Lee site in northern South Carolina.
Design changes and timing aren’t the only problems facing Westinghouse. Flaws have emerged involving essential components in the AP1000’s emergency cooling system, and involving digital instrumentation and control. At Harris, the NRC has already identified site problems involving the amount of cooling water Progress Energy wants to pump from miles away, and with a plan to raise Harris Lake that would affect cooling water intake, modify and eliminate roads, and impact traffic during potential evacuations.
“Each step moves the nuclear industry farther into a tar pit,” said Warren. “And they’re dragging taxpayers and ratepayers with them. It’s time to off-ramp the nuclear revival, and get on with the urgent business of cutting greenhouse gases — through efficiency, cogeneration and renewables– before it’s too late to avert runway global warming.”
See NC WARN’s legal motion to NRC at the top of www.ncwarn.org
Contact me for other documents.
NC WARN is a grassroots non-profit using science and activism to tackle climate change and reduce hazards to public health and the environment from nuclear power and other polluting electricity production, and working for a transition to safe, economical energy in North Carolina.