After Fukushima, New Fears in U.S.

Japan’s catastrophe has raised new safety concerns about the proposed AP1000 nuclear reactor.

John Raymond

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan's eastern coast. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The cat­a­stro­phe in Japan caused by an earth­quake and tsuna­mi on March 11 – one of the worst nuclear dis­as­ters since the advent of com­mer­cial nuclear pow­er – has drawn atten­tion to the David-and-Goliath strug­gle under­way to stop fed­er­al reg­u­la­tors from approv­ing a new untest­ed nuclear reac­tor that crit­ics say has clear safe­ty design flaws. The reac­tor, known as the AP1000 and designed by West­ing­house-Toshi­ba, is pro­posed for 14 sites across the south­east­ern Unit­ed States.

'The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is a leaky vessel for hope,' said Lou Zeller of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

The full core melt­downs at three nuclear reac­tors at the Fukushi­ma Dai­ichi nuclear plant have raised new safe­ty con­cerns about the AP1000 reac­tor. The AP1000 Over­sight Group, a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal watch­dog groups in the South­east, filed a new legal chal­lenge on June 16 with the Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (NRC) to declare the commission’s cur­rent AP1000 review null and void.” 

The groups say the pro­posed design sub­mit­ted for pub­lic com­ment does not resolve known safe­ty design issues, does not apply lessons already learned from Fukushi­ma, and fur­ther, that the NRC’s review process did not give the pub­lic – includ­ing out­side nuclear engi­neers – the time need­ed to review and com­ment on the design. The pub­lic com­ment peri­od, which began in late Feb­ru­ary and end­ed in May, was cut off after 75 days despite thou­sands of requests to extend it.

The NRC’s main goal is to bull­doze this license through no mat­ter the pend­ing safe­ty ques­tions,” says Tom Clements, south­east­ern nuclear cam­paign coor­di­na­tor with Friends of the Earth. He and oth­ers charge that the NRC, under indus­try pres­sure, is fast-track­ing the review process to cer­ti­fy the reac­tor this year and will put off con­sid­er­a­tion of design changes need­ed as a result of Fukushi­ma until a lat­er date, after reac­tor con­struc­tion may already be under­way at some sites.

There are pro­found eco­nom­ic and safe­ty issues that remain. Tech­ni­cal experts inside and out­side of the NRC have con­firmed them, and there is great pres­sure to cov­er over them and move ahead,” says Jim War­ren, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the North Car­oli­na Waste Aware­ness and Reduc­tion Net­work (NC WARN) based in Durham, N.C.

Friends of the Earth, NC WARN and the AP1000 Over­sight Group have sub­mit­ted tech­ni­cal stud­ies and expert reports with impli­ca­tions for the design of the AP1000 that relate to its con­tain­ment struc­ture, the strength of the shield build­ing, emer­gency cool­ing sys­tems and the high-den­si­ty spent fuel pools pro­posed in Westinghouse’s design.

[It] is imper­a­tive that the NRC re-eval­u­ate the new AP1000 design in light of its poten­tial for con­tain­ment fail­ure,” says Arnie Gun­der­sen, a for­mer senior nuclear indus­try offi­cial and chief engi­neer of Fairewinds Asso­ciates, Inc., an inde­pen­dent research firm. He first brought atten­tion to the AP1000’s flawed con­tain­ment design in a report com­mis­sioned by the AP1000 Over­sight Group and sub­mit­ted to the NRC in April 2010. The report linked the poten­tial for con­tain­ment fail­ure in the AP1000 to its chim­ney effect” design that would release radi­a­tion into the envi­ron­ment fol­low­ing a nuclear accident. 

West­ing­house dis­putes the entire report. Com­pa­ny spokesman Vaughn Gilbert told the indus­try jour­nal Nuclear Engi­neer­ing Inter­na­tion­al, We are cer­tain­ly nev­er sur­prised when an anti­nu­clear group with an anti­nu­clear agen­da puts forth anti­nu­clear comments.” 

But Gun­der­sen is not alone in rais­ing safe­ty warn­ings. Inside the NRC, Dr. John Ma, the lead staff engi­neer who ana­lyzed the AP1000 shield build­ing, filed a for­mal dis­sent in Novem­ber against approv­ing the design, warn­ing that a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter would shat­ter the [building’s] wall as it does a glass cup.” Despite requests to release Ma’s full report, the NRC has only made a heav­i­ly redact­ed ver­sion avail­able. Friends of the Earth recent­ly filed a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request for the uncen­sored report.

The NRC is a leaky ves­sel for hope,” said Lou Zeller of Blue Ridge Envi­ron­men­tal Defense League, which is fight­ing plans to build two AP1000 pow­er plants out­side Augus­ta, Ga. It will require action on the part of res­i­dents, activists, elect­ed offi­cials and oth­ers to pre­vent an aggres­sive com­pa­ny with pow­er­ful polit­i­cal sup­port from rid­ing roughshod over safe­ty issues,” he said.

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