Divided NRC Panel approves Vogtle AP1000 License – Full construction able to begin

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A divided federal panel on Thursday licensed a utility to build nuclear reactors in the U.S. for the first time since 1978.  Four commissioners voted to grant the license, while chairman Gregory Jazcko abstained. He had wanted the license issued on condition that Southern Company implement NRC recommendations developed in response to the Fukushima accident in Japan last year.

License certification is the door to construction. The costs of getting one for a new reactor can exceed $100 milllion.  The AP1000 design has an unusual containment structure, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved it, after Safety Evaluation Reports, and after a Design Certification Rule.


In April 2010, Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear engineer commissioned by several anti-nuclear groups, released a report which explored a hazard associated with the possible rusting through of the containment structure steel liner. In the AP1000 design, the liner and the concrete are separated, and if the steel rusts through, “there is no backup containment behind it” according to Gundersen.

Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has challenged specific cost-saving design choices made for both the AP1000 and ESBWR, another new design. Lyman is concerned about the strength of the steel containment vessel and the concrete shield building around the AP1000. The AP1000 containment vessel does not have sufficient safety margins, says Lyman.

Potentially the most damaging critique of the AP1000 comes from John Ma, a senior structural engineer at the NRC.

In 2009, the NRC made a safety change related to the events of September 11, ruling that all plants be designed to withstand the direct hit from a plane. To meet the new requirement, Westinghouse encased the AP1000 buildings concrete walls in steel plates. Last year Ma, a member of the NRC since it was formed in 1974, filed the first “non-concurrence” dissent of his career after the NRC granted the design approval. In it Ma argues that some parts of the steel skin are so brittle that the “impact energy” from a plane strike or storm driven projectile could shatter the wall. A team of engineering experts hired by Westinghouse disagreed..


 

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, opposed licensing the reactors at this time, saying more needed to be done to ensure that lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima disaster last year are engrained in the reactor design.

“I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened,” he told his colleagues.

“There is no amnesia,” responded Commissioner Kristine Svinick, speaking for the majority.

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Southern’s project in Georgia has received $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees. Essentially, taxpayers are assuring private capital that their investment will be protected if the borrower, in this case a utility, defaults.

 

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There’s more than just the four reactors at Vogtle and V.C. Summer on the horizon. There are plans for eight more AP1000 reactors – four in Florida, two in North Carolina, and two in South Carolina.

The next two AP1000s likely to be built are to be located near Miami at the Turkey Point power station operated by Florida Power & Light. Duke Energy recently said it is pushing ahead with its license application two AP1000s at the William States Lee III site in South Carolina. Complicating that project is the need for CWIP approval by the PUCs on both North and South Carolina.

Further out are plans by Progress Energy, now being merged with Duke, for two AP1000s at Levy County on Florida’s west coast and two more at the Harris site in North Carolina. Plans for these reactors may change as a result of the merger of the two utilities.

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Source: US NEWS MSNBC

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