Alleged flaws in turbine building design could cost customers dearly and compromise safety, groups say in legal filing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state utility commissions
Durham, NC – Another insider has signaled concerns about corners being cut with Westinghouse’s new nuclear plant design that could compromise safety, lead to construction delays and cause expensive outages if new plants ever become operational. Public interest groups NC WARN and Friends of the Earth today called on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to confirm whether major structural changes were properly made to the turbine building when the AP1000 was being scaled up from an earlier and smaller Westinghouse plant design.
The allegations follow two sets of extended delays for AP1000 projects revealed last week.
Today, the groups requested that NRC suspend its review of the AP1000 pending open resolution of multiple problems including the new allegations. Construction and operating licenses for the AP1000 are being sought by Georgia Power, South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) and three other southeastern utilities. Licensing is contingent upon “certification” of the AP1000 design, and because Georgia Power and SCE&G are already performing extensive pre-licensing construction, the NRC is under great pressure to finalize the design approval despite continuing exposure of design problems.
Today’s legal motion cites an industry insider who passed along concerns due to the “wake up call” posed by the Fukushima disaster. The insider, who must remain anonymous, alleges that in order to lower construction costs, Westinghouse intends to cram critical safety and generating equipment into a building that had been designed for the smaller AP600 plant design.
The insider said the turbine building was designed for the AP600 plant and carried forward, without proper scaling, for the AP1000, and that the larger turbine and related equipment simply won’t fit in the building. Allegedly, at Georgia Power’s Vogtle project, engineers already must redesign the turbine building to relocate equipment into add-on buildings, a problem for which budgeting and licensing implications have not been publicized by either the NRC or Georgia Power.
The allegations cannot be confirmed because Westinghouse claims the related documents are security sensitive, but the watchdog groups believe the source is reliable. They retained nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates to review the new information. If the charges are true, Gundersen says, the shoehorned AP1000 design ignores safety concerns involving access to critical equipment, and could significantly increase repair costs that will later be borne by ratepayers.
“If true, it’s as if Westinghouse tried to fit a spare tire from an 18-wheeler into the trunk of a Volkswagen,” said Gundersen today, “and the Westinghouse’s cost-cutting approach will have backfired because additional buildings must now be constructed to house overflowing equipment.”
He said worker access to essential equipment could be restricted, which could increase operating down-time and future costs to ratepayers for maintenance of equipment such as turbines, condensers, and feedwater components.
MONTHS OF DELAY ALREADY CERTAIN: The new allegations follow last week’s revelations, reported by Reuters, that final design of the AP1000 has been delayed at least three months due to changes that could stem from the Fukushima disaster. The NRC staff had stated in an August 2011 letter that full documentation on the AP1000 would be turned over to NRC commissioners by October 5 for a “certification” vote. That deadline was missed and no new schedule has been established.
Even more problematic is an October 3 NRC “notice of violation” found last week by Friends of the Earth. In it, the NRC said Westinghouse has “failed to effectively demonstrate the ability of the shield building to withstand an aircraft impact.” The company has 30 days to respond, but because it has been haggling with NRC staff over the problem for more than a year, design certification is no longer certain, the watchdogs say.
The insider who passed along the turbine building allegations said the Fukushima disaster was a reminder that severe accidents can happen here, so known problems must be corrected. A number of outside industry experts and insiders from both Westinghouse and the NRC have, over the past year, voiced concerns regarding serious design flaws uncovered with the AP1000 design.
Engineer Gundersen explained that the auxiliary feedwater system is a nuclear plant’s first line of defense to cool the steam generators when a plant shuts down, and that if significant portions of the system are within an undersized building, safety systems would be challenged to operate as intended.
“These safety concerns must be thoroughly and openly analyzed by the NRC,” said Gundersen.
The groups also intend to alert utility regulators and Georgia and South Carolina about the latest design problem because, if true, it will likely impact construction schedules and costs to ratepayers.
NC WARN’s Jim Warren said today, “The industry’s attempt to push past numerous design flaws creates immeasurable risk to public safety and public dollars. It looks like the Vogtle project is already suffering serious cost overruns. The NRC must openly resolve all design flaws now – not relegate them to the ‘cost plus’ mindset that’s inevitable after construction officially begins.”