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Friends of the Earth, NC WARN
Jim Warren 919-416-5077
Tom Clements 803-240-7268
Former Insider Says Westinghouse and NRC are Ignoring the Sun’s Heat Impacts on Nuclear Systems Despite U.S. Concrete Failures this Summer
As regulators rush to approve the AP1000 nuclear plant design, groups demand resolution of safety concerns highlighted by numerous experts and the Fukushima disaster
Durham, NC – Today Friends of the Earth and NC WARN filed a legal motion in the AP1000 design certification docket raising new questions about the safety of the Westinghouse-designed reactor, which they say is being rushed by Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff toward final approval despite numerous problems. The motion regards analysis by a former design engineer for Westinghouse’s “passive” reactor technology who says the company, the NRC and the agency’s advisors continue to ignore the critical role solar heating could play during an accident.
The watchdog groups argue that the sun’s heating of the shield building could result in weakness and failure, particularly under external stresses such as an earthquake, and could cause internal pressures during an accident to exceed the level the reactor’s containment is designed to withstand. Damage to the shield building could mean collapse of the seven million pound water tank that rests atop the building and thus loss of the passive emergency cooling feature Westinghouse touts so heavily.
“Heat transfer to and from the reactor building is a very important factor in the safety analysis of this plant” involving “many calculations,” Sterritt told an NRC advisory panel during a hearing last month.
She also noted that just this summer, solar heating caused concrete to buckle at airports and bridges, and water pipes across the US to burst open. The NRC is ignoring this “simple matter of basic physics” in its review of the nuclear plant design, she said.
Dr. Sterrett, who no longer works in the nuclear industry, identified other critical and overlooked safety concerns in 2003 involving Westinghouse’s efforts to scale up the AP600 plant to the larger AP1000 design; Sterritt worked on the AP600. She says the company ignored standard engineering principles and its own internal processes, problems the NRC has never properly addressed. She recently re-entered the debate after watching corners still being cut with the AP1000.
“To ignore the sun’s impact on plants to be built in the South is reckless and unlawful,” NC WARN’s Jim Warren said today. “Westinghouse claims plant workers could ‘walk away’ from an AP1000 accident due to passive emergency cooling,” But an earthquake, attack or loss of coolant could destroy those systems and force plant workers to ‘run away’ from a radiation disaster.”
The two groups say the shield building and containment problems coincide with the NRC’s Fukushima Task Force warning that the agency must, after years of disregard, finally begin evaluating protections against accidents or impacts greater than those nuclear plants are designed to survive.
In July, that task force identified problems that must be resolved with new designs, but said changes could be made during plant construction. Friends of the Earth and NC WARN told the NRC “such an approach puts federal taxpayers and state electricity customers at risk of eye-watering cost overruns and project abandonment.” The groups contend that federal regulations require all design problems be resolved before the reactor is “certified” by the NRC and not during construction.
Dr. Sterrett detailed her concerns to the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, during a
hearing last month following the release of Revision 19 of the AP1000 design.* Using Westinghouse graphics, she emphasized solar heating’s impacts on two key safety systems that have been controversial since last year – the shield building and the containment.
“Both are important for predicting the heat removal capability of the passive containment cooling system to remove decay heat after an accident,” she told the ACRS. “More hangs on keeping the containment cooled in this passive design than on other [operating plants],” which have double-walled containments and powerful pumps to drive emergency cooling. She said that testing for emergency cooling of the reactor containment was performed in a way that tends to underestimate pressure that can build up during an accident.
The advisory panel nevertheless signed off on the final design on September 19th. Today the groups responded that, in its letter to the NRC, the ACRS evaded Sterritt’s core issues. Warren added that “Just as NRC staff keeps doing, the ACRS seems willing to let Westinghouse make up new ways to evade key issues in order to please the industry.”
If Westinghouse is forced to properly incorporate solar thermal heating, the critical peak pressure calculation would almost surely exceed the maximum legal limit of 59 pounds per square inch, which the company has long struggled to meet. In May, NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko raised questions about that critical threshold. The watchdog groups are suspicious about Westinghouse’s later recalculation, which again fell just barely below the limit. Today they called for the NRC to open those recalculations for public review.
The NRC’s lead structural engineer, Dr. John Ma, also formally rejected approval of the shield building for additional reasons but the agency has refused to release an uncensored version of his complaint despite repeated demands and a Freedom of Information Act request. The AP1000, which has never been built anywhere in the world, is being pursued as the reactor of choice by several southern utilities. At two sites – Plant Vogtle in Georgia (Southern Company) and V.C. Summer in South Carolina (SCE&G) – “pre-construction” is well underway.
The public interest groups reiterated their intention to take the NRC to court if it approves the AP1000 without openly resolving all safety concerns raised by internal and external experts. In an August 5 letter to Westinghouse, the NRC said that “The final rulemaking package … is expected to be provided to the Commission for their deliberation no later than October 5, 2011, and the projected time frame for publication of the final rule in the Federal Register is January 2012.”
“The NRC cannot keep dancing to the nuclear industry’s fiddle,” said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth today, who is leading the challenge against construction of the AP1000 at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant. “Even without design or licensing approval, SCE&G is being allowed to build the containment at the Summer plant, so there is severe pressure on the NRC to re-certify the AP1000 design while pretending this long list of problems will simply be forgotten.”