Contact: Jim Warren/919-416-5077
September 8, 2008
Nuclear Revival Hits More Delays over Design Problems
Industry nightmare looms as Westinghouse misses deadlines,
asks NRC to suspend schedule; upcoming meetings could be pivotal
DURHAM, NC – Hopes for resuscitating the U.S. nuclear power industry have suffered another serious setback as Westinghouse missed a much-anticipated August deadline for submitting an additional round of complex design modifications. The nuclear plant vendor has asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to postpone the schedule for reviewing the plant blueprints until the company completes another version of the design.
The escalating design problems in recent months throws into a lurch the NRC’s separate review of applications by Progress Energy, Duke Energy, TVA and others hoping to build the Westinghouse AP1000. Industry and NRC officials had counted on plant designs being completed and “standardized” before the utilities began submitting applications late in 2007. Problems arising over the past year involving major components and operating systems had already pushed back the plant design’s expected approval date by at least three years, until late 2011.
Now, because plant applications are largely dependent on thousands of pages of Westinghouse’s technical design documents, the ongoing revisions threaten to create a regulatory and legal quagmire as technical staffs of the utilities, NRC, and public interest groups slog through the interlocking blueprints. The emerging predicament is reminiscent of problems of the 1980s that led to cancellation of scores of nuclear plants that were under construction, and massive cost overruns for the rest.
“This is the industry’s nightmare scenario,” said Jim Warren of NC WARN today, “I wonder if they’ll wake up before actually trying to build these plants? Or sleep-walk the path toward the delays, cost overruns and cancellations that lie on the road ahead.” He noted that French-owned AREVA, Inc. is living the bad dream while trying to build a reactor in Finland, which has suffered a 50% cost increase and is years behind schedule.
The latest troubles also raise questions for Southeastern electricity customers, because state utility commissions have already pre-approved hundreds of millions of dollars in plant “development” costs – even before the utilities gain federal or state approval for construction. That transfer of risk to ratepayers was set in place last year by utility-friendly state legislatures.
FORBES magazine blamed such state commissions and industry executives for most of the 1980s debacle, calling it “the largest managerial disaster in business history.”
A pair of upcoming meetings between the NRC and industry officials, on 9/11 and 9/17, will explore the depth of the design certification scheduling problems. In an August 21st letter from Westinghouse to the NRC, obtained last Thursday by NC WARN, the company said it will soon submit a new version of the AP1000 plant design, the 17th revision. It is unclear what impact that will have on plant applications that are based on Revision 16.
“The industry and NRC are in the finger-pointing stage,” said Warren. “The agency clearly doesn’t want to be blamed for the delays caused by Westinghouse as the company tries to reduce the estimated cost of new plants by revamping major systems.” He added that it’s a bad use of taxpayer money to have several teams of NRC staffers trying to evaluate thousands of pages of conflicting technical documents that are constantly being modified. The NRC is under industry and political pressure to evaluate new plant applications on an expedited time frame.
The Westinghouse letter to NRC is located on NRC’s ADAMS at ML 082380866