A new nuclear reactor design being backed by the United States may not be durable enough to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes or a direct airplane hit, American regulators have said, raising security concerns as the country attempts an atomic revival.
President Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees this week for two new reactors planned at an existing Southern Company nuclear site some 170 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia.
The reactors would use the AP1000 third-generation technology designed by Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest makers of nuclear turbines.
The company says the AP1000 is the "safest" nuclear power plant on the market. A full one-half of 440 reactors on the books worldwide are based on it, according to its figures. In America, around 12 AP1000s are planned.
But the design has yet to get safety clearance in the U.S., and it is not generating electricity anywhere in the world.
The main design flaw is in the "shield building," the steel dome that covers the reactor, supposedly protecting it from external shocks. Westinghouse wants to reinforce the cover with a "sandwich" of two steel plates filled with concrete, instead of the conventional method of reinforced concrete strengthened with steel bars.
Last October, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), overseer of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants, informed Westinghouse that the AP1000’s shield building has not demonstrated an ability to withstand extreme weather and other forces, and it ordered more tests.
"We’ve been talking to Westinghouse regularly about the shield building since October 2008, and we’ve consistently laid out our questions to the company," Michael Johnson, director of the NRC’s Office of New Reactors said in a press release.
"This is a situation where fundamental engineering standards will have to be met before we can begin determining whether the shield building meets the agency’s requirements," he said.
The company, which is on its seventeenth revision, has yet to formally submit an improvement of the shield building, though a closed-door meeting between the NRC and Westinghouse is expected soon.
The firm is also said to be collaborating with Purdue University to study earthquake resistance.
When questioned about safety concerns this week, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters that the AP1000 is "being built in a way" that is "going to be much safer."
But nuclear opponents are not convinced. "There is no way that [Secretary Chu] or anyone else can say this design is safe when it’s not even licensed and the review is on hold," said Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for environmental group Friends of the Earth.
For Clements, the decision to greenlight billions for the plants before winning safety approval reeks of "politics and public relations."
"This whole [loan guarantees] program is being run in secrecy," Clements told SolveClimate. "We don’t know how they’re making they’re decisions. They won’t release any information. It underscores the fact that the Obama administration’s directives about openness and transparency are just not being carried out."
Environmental group Greenpeace called the nuclear handout "another corporate bailout" and a "dirty and dangerous distraction" that gives "new meaning to the phrase ‘toxic asset.’"
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a staunch supporter of nuclear power who has repeatedly called for 100 new facilities, said the announcement was a "welcome change from an energy policy that was looking like a national windmill policy."
Analysts expect the NRC to grant full approval for an operating license for the Georgia reactors sometime in 2011.
But Clements said that decision is fully dependent on the designs being licensed, and there’s no end in sight.
"The review of the whole plant is basically up in the air because they do not have the new design," he said. "If the delays keep mounting up, who knows what’s going to happen. It’s all up in the air."
UK Echoes AP1000 Safety Concerns; China Pours First Concrete
On Tuesday, the same day the Obama administration announced America’s first batch of billions for new nuclear, British regulators at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued a warning over the AP1000.
Like the United States, the UK has been considering the Westinghouse design for its coming nuclear renaissance.
In a letter echoing the concerns of the NRC about the sheild building, the HSE told Westinghouse, "we need to be reassured that key structures would be sufficiently robust to protect the reactor’s safety systems under normal conditions, and also from severe weather and other external hazards, such as physical impacts."
"In order to get that reassurance, we need to see appropriate evidence to demonstrate the strength and durability of the structures,” the agency said. "In essence, we want to be assured that the structure will hold together."
In response, Mike Tynan, the CEO of Westinghouse UK, said: "We recognize there is a significant amount of work which needs to be done before we can achieve a positive outcome" by mid-2011, but he added that the UK regulators did not see the design issue as "a likely ‘showstopper.’"
To date, China is the only nation pouring the first structural concrete for its coming fleet of AP1000 plants. According to Westinghouse, the company is currently constructing four such plants there, with plans for 100 of its reactors to be built by 2020.
Lagging China in nuclear growth, however, may not be a bad thing, suggested Clements. "Of course, the Chinese don’t have much regulation," he said.