The NRC has given the go ahead for two new AP1000 reactors that are already under construction. The design itself has come under heavy criticism from inside the NRC and outside. A study commissioned on the safety of the reactor design raises major questions that the NRC has not addressed.
Many of the concerns cited come from events at the Fukushima nuclear disaster and asks the NRC to review the design in light of this new and important information. Instead of doing so the NRC stated that they instructed the operator to deal with the new design and safety challenges with this statement “the industry has been directed to adopt those lessons“. In short the NRC had done nothing to re-review the design in light of Fukushima and has given the operator no binding instructions to change anything.
Chairman Jaczko was the only commission member to vote against the approval. He made this statement:
“There is still more work to be done to ensure that lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima disaster last year are engrained in the reactor design, he told his colleagues. I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened.”
The commissioned independent report on the AP1000 design cites a number of serious issues the NRC has not addressed. Among this is the lack of protection for the giant water tank that sits at the top of the reactor building to provide emergency cooling water in an accident. The tank is vulnerable to damage from flying debris, missiles or similar damage. The tank’s valve system has not been tested to assure they would work properly in an accident and it is unsure if the tank could be refilled in an emergency.
The passive cooling system provided by an outer concrete shell that is intended to remove heat by convection from the reactor containment building could be voided by damage to the structure or having the vent holes blocked with debris. Both again issues clearly a possibility based on what happened at the Fukushima disaster.
Many other features of the AP1000 reactor are old designs that are the same as the old generations of reactors. Currently these aspects of the AP1000 are not being re-reviewed to take the Fukushima Task Force safety changes into account. The NRC is going to allow the reactors to be built and then go back and retrofit new reactors to fix the flaws or make safety changes. These include important changes to spent fuel pools to assure they can be properly cooled and have a back up power source. Making these changes before construction rather than retrofits not only makes sense from a cost perspective, it is smarter from a safety perspective. Doing it correctly the first time would result in a better system than one that is forced to work in the configuration.
Nine groups opposing the approval of these reactors is attempting to block the approval in federal court.
The NRC has had a habit in the past of allowing reactor construction to begin before the project is fully approved. The money spent on the start of construction was used in the past to pressure the NRC to give approvals. With 8.3 billion dollars of taxpayer money being used as loan guarantees for this project, the public will be on the hook if the private sector project eventually fails. Over the years the US has seen 37 nuclear reactor projects abandoned in the construction phase, costing consumers and taxpayers millions to billions per project in wasted money.
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