A Toshiba Corp. reactor remains on track to power the first new U.S. nuclear plants approved in 30 years, as regulators signaled Japan’s Fukushima disaster won’t deter acceptance of the proposed design.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s staff declared Aug. 9 that the AP1000 design by Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric unit is safe, and also supported its first planned use at a plant under construction in Georgia by Southern Co., the largest U.S. utility owner by market value. The full commission still must vote to approve the reactor design and a plant license.
Southern, based in Atlanta, has dug foundations and finished a fabrication plant for the $14 billion project southeast of Augusta, Georgia, and wants to begin full construction in January. Staff approval means public hearings can begin on its license request, the company said in a statement. The NRC plans to publish the staff safety report for the reactor design today.
An NRC task force recommended last month that the agency adopt new rules to protect the 104 existing U.S. commercial reactors from earthquakes and floods. An earthquake and tsunami devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko wants the commission to consider within 90 days which of the task force’s suggestions to implement.
“There doesn’t appear to be any recommendation that would affect the design-certification process for the AP1000,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said in an e-mail. A commission vote to certify the new reactor design is expected “by the beginning of next year,” he said.
The AP1000 already has many “features and attributes necessary to address” recommendations by the task force on U.S. reactor safety, according to its report.
Critics such as the North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network say action on nuclear plants, including the AP1000 design, should be delayed until the NRC learns the safety lessons of Fukushima and puts changes in place.
“There’s sort of a bizarre pretense within the agency that they won’t have to deal with the changes from Fukushima until after they get the projects licensed and even under way,” Jim Warren, executive director of the clean-energy group based in Durham, said in an interview.
Federal law prohibits the NRC from acting on reactor licenses until the agency updates its regulations to protect the public from severe accidents or studies the environmental impacts of failing to do so, according to a statement released today by organizations including the North Carolina group and Friends of the Earth.
The NRC hasn’t issued a new construction license since a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, the worst U.S. nuclear accident. The AP1000 is the only new design far enough along to generate power in this decade.
The Shaw Group Inc. of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has contracts to build the reactors for Southern Co.’s Georgia Power unit and two planned by Scana Corp.’s South Carolina Electric & Gas. Each reactor would generate 1,100 megawatts, enough to power 880,000 average U.S. homes.
“The only two plants that seem to have a fighting chance of moving ahead right now are Vogtle and Scana’s,” Hugh Wynne, a New York-based analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. said in an interview Aug. 9. “Insofar as that is our nuclear renaissance, the AP1000 is pretty important to it.”
Southern has said it expects its first new reactor to begin operating in 2016 and the second about a year later. Southern expects the NRC to vote on its license “around the end of the year,” Todd Terrell, a company spokesman, said yesterday in an interview.
Scana’s Target Date
Scana has set 2016 as the target date for its first reactor to begin operations and 2019 for the second.
Scana is confident that it will receive a license to build and operate the reactors “within our previously announced time-frame of late 2011 or early 2012,” Rhonda Maree O’Banion, a spokeswoman for the Cayce, South Carolina-based company, said in an e-mail.
Companies including Exelon Corp., the largest U.S. nuclear operator, shelved or delayed nuclear projects after wholesale electricity prices fell in 2008. Most plan to meet new demand with plants fueled by natural gas, which has plunged in price.
Duke Energy Corp. has said it may buy a stake in the plant to be built by Scana before tackling its own new nuclear project.
The AP1000’s reactor design is in the “home stretch” for final approval, Aris Candris, chief executive officer of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse said in a statement Aug. 9.
The reactor won NRC approval once before, in 2006. While the industry praised it as the first in a new generation of reactors, none were built before the commission ordered modifications in October 2009 to strengthen its silo-shaped shield building against earthquakes and tornadoes. In May, two months after the Japan disaster, the commission questioned the revised design.
Westinghouse doesn’t expect the NRC’s Fukushima report to delay the reactor’s design further, according to company spokesman Scott Shaw. The AP1000 “naturally cools the reactor down” in the event of an emergency, unlike the 1960s-era units designed by General Electric Co. that were damaged at Fukushima, he said in a phone interview.
The AP1000 has a reservoir on its roof designed to flood the reactor with water using only gravity if coolant is lost. That “passive” approach avoids relying on pumps run by electricity, Westinghouse says. Backup power failed after the natural disaster at the Fukushima plant.
“The AP1000 design is robust and its passive safety systems should preclude many of the problems that occurred in Japan,” Thomas Fanning, Southern Co.’s chairman and chief executive officer, said on an April 27 conference call.
How well the steel-and-concrete shield building with its load of water on the roof could withstand rocking from an earthquake had been among the concerns of the NRC staff. The building’s “unique” design required more thorough stress-testing of the structural parts, John Ma, the NRC’s senior structural engineer, said in a November memorandum.
Westinghouse gave the NRC “clarifications and minor corrections” about the reactor that don’t affect safety, and there’s “no material impact” on its design, according to a June 13 statement from the company.
The NRC may require reactor owners within the next three months to identify vulnerabilities to earthquakes and floods, a majority of the agency’s commissioners told a Senate committee Aug. 3.
“If we don’t consider the recommendations in a timely way it could have the potential impact of delaying the action on the new reactor licensing,” Jaczko told the committee.
If the NRC adopts the task force’s recommendations after approving new reactor licenses for Southern and Scana, those and all existing reactors would be subject to the new rules. If the commission acts on any recommendation that could affect a license, the NRC would “issue the license with a condition that the new requirement be met,” Burnell said in an e-mail.