New AP1000 Nuclear Reactor Design Sparks Ire

But Nuclear Regulatory Commission ignores concerns over potential containment failures.

John Raymond

The Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, in Waynesboro, Ga. (Photo courtesy of BlatantWorld.com/CreativeCommons/Flickr)

In their rush to approve a new­ly designed nuclear reac­tor slat­ed for pro­posed pow­er plants through­out the south­east­ern Unit­ed States, fed­er­al reg­u­la­tors are ignor­ing safe­ty issues raised by a pat­tern of con­tain­ment fail­ures in reac­tors. That’s the urgent mes­sage at the cen­ter of two recent reports exam­in­ing the design of the West­ing­house AP1000 reac­tor, which the Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (NRC) is in the process of certifying. 

Containment system failures have been relatively common during the last 30 years.

Both reports were writ­ten by Arnold Gun­der­sen, a for­mer senior nuclear indus­try offi­cial and chief engi­neer of Fairewinds Asso­ciates, Inc., an inde­pen­dent research firm. The ini­tial report was released in April 2010, and the fol­low-up report released in late Decem­ber. They were com­mis­sioned by the AP1000 Over­sight Group, a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions cen­tered in the South­east, where con­struc­tion of 14 new nuclear pow­er plants has been pro­posed. Because of the safe­ty issues doc­u­ment­ed by Gun­der­sen, the coali­tion is con­test­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the AP1000.

Gundersen’s reports focus on the AP1000’s con­tain­ment sys­tem, warn­ing that a con­tain­ment fail­ure in the AP1000 would cause a radi­a­tion release into the envi­ron­ment due to the chim­ney effect” design, which he believes will suck radioac­tive gas­es out of the hole in the top of the reactor’s sin­gle-wall con­tain­ment struc­ture. Addi­tion­al­ly, the AP1000’s design is more vul­ner­a­ble to cor­ro­sion than con­tain­ment sys­tems of cur­rent reac­tor designs and had numer­ous inac­ces­si­ble loca­tions” not avail­able for inspection.

Cer­ti­fied inspec­tions of oper­at­ing reac­tors have failed to detect con­tain­ment fail­ures for years,” Gun­der­sen said, not­ing that radi­a­tion releas­es from a con­tain­ment fail­ure could be more than 1,000 times as great as that allowed under fed­er­al law. Con­tain­ment sys­tem fail­ures are the ele­phant in the room.” 

Because the NRC has no data­base track­ing con­tain­ment sys­tem fail­ures, Gundersen’s research involved a lengthy process of review­ing many hun­dreds of indi­vid­ual licensee event reports and indi­vid­ual infor­ma­tion notices issued by the NRC. After sub­mit­ting the ini­tial report to the NRC in April 2010, Gun­der­sen pre­sent­ed his find­ings in June direct­ly to the NRC’s Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on Reac­tor Safe­guards (ACRS). In his sec­ond report, he charged that NRC staff cher­ry-picked” con­tain­ment fail­ure issues it reviewed in an Octo­ber ACRS meeting. 

Both the ACRS and West­ing­house have dis­missed the con­cerns raised in the reports. Envi­ron­men­tal groups hold­ing press con­fer­ences against nuclear plants are not sur­pris­ing to us. … The AP1000 is very well-designed and is the tech­nol­o­gy of choice in most parts of the world,” West­ing­house spokesman Vaughn Gilbert told the Raleigh News and Observ­er. Four AP1000 reac­tors are cur­rent­ly under con­struc­tion in China.

In late Jan­u­ary, the ACRS rec­om­mend­ed that two AP1000 reac­tors pro­posed for the Plant Vog­tle site in Way­nes­boro, Ga., could be built and oper­at­ed with­out undue risk to the health and safe­ty of the pub­lic.” The ACRS did state there were remain­ing issues to be resolved, but did not note the con­tain­ment safe­ty design issues cit­ed in Gundersen’s reports.

Con­tain­ment sys­tem fail­ures have been rel­a­tive­ly com­mon dur­ing the last 30 years. There are at least 80 fail­ures out there and the NRC is not look­ing at this his­to­ry to rec­og­nize that a con­tain­ment fail­ure could hap­pen in the AP1000,” Gun­der­sen said. One fail­ure was at the Fitz­patrick nuclear pow­er plant in Oswego, N.Y., where a four-and-a-half inch crack com­plete­ly pen­e­trat­ed the con­tain­ment lin­er due to ther­mal stress.

Though the Plant Vog­tle AP1000 reac­tors have not received NRC cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, on-site prepa­ra­tion work began last year. Con­struc­tion work on the reac­tor can­not begin until the AP1000 is cer­ti­fied and the util­i­ty receives the required oper­at­ing license from the NRC. Local envi­ron­men­tal groups are chal­leng­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and licens­ing process, but cus­tomers of the South­ern Nuclear Oper­at­ing Com­pa­ny are already pick­ing up some of the cost. Their util­i­ty bills went up on Jan­u­ary 1 under new state leg­is­la­tion allow­ing pri­vate util­i­ties to charge cus­tomers for the cost of financ­ing new pow­er plants under construction.

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma award­ed the Plant Vog­tle project an $8.2 bil­lion fed­er­al loan guar­an­tee last year – more than half its $14.5 mil­lion price tag. Tax­pay­ers could very well lose that much mon­ey on the project. The action was wide­ly crit­i­cized by envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which cit­ed a Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office study pre­dict­ing that 50 per­cent of reac­tor projects receiv­ing loan guar­an­tees will default on their loans.

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