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Caution advised on upcoming NRC reactor decision

Plant Vogtle

A Washington lawmaker urged caution on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s pending final decisions on new nuclear reactor designs.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in prepared remarks at the NRC Regulatory Information Conference Rockville, MD on March 8, he is nearing final action on new reactor designs. “In fact, as early as this summer, the Commission may take final action on the [Westinghouse Electric Co.] AP1000, ABWR, and ESBWR [both from GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy] design certification rules and conduct the first mandatory hearing on a new reactor license since the 1970s,” he said. A public comment period on the designs ends May 10, 2011.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, urged Jaczko in a March 8 letter not to approve the Westinghouse design until “serious safety concerns have been addressed.” Markey contends that the designs are vulnerable to aircraft impact and earthquakes.

Atlanta-based Southern Co. and its partners want to build two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, GA. The NRC cannot make a final decision on whether to approve that project until the reactor it would use has been safety certified. According to Markey, the Department of Energy has approved an application for a loan guarantee of $8.3 billion for the two proposed reactors. If the AP1000 is approved, he said, it would allow pending applications for new reactors to go forward in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Markey said NRC staff raised concerns about the design’s vulnerability to earthquake and commercial aircraft impact. “One of NRC’s longest-serving staff has warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment shield could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if it is hit by an earthquake or a commercial aircraft,” he said.

The shield building is meant to prevent damage to the reactor that could cause fuel melting and radiation releases.  “If the NRC approves the AP1000, then it may have widespread use throughout the United States, making questions about its safety of crucial national importance,” said Rep. Markey. “Taxpayer dollars should not be spent on reactors that could be at risk of suffering a catastrophic core meltdown in the event of an aircraft strike or a major earthquake.”

Markey pointed to the February 24, 2011 arrest of a student in Texas who allegedly wished to target nuclear plants in attacks. On the same day, the NRC published a rule certifying the AP1000 in the Federal Register, despite serious safety concerns raised by its own staff member, Dr. John Ma, he said.

“Whether the threat emanates from the ground deep below or from the skies above, we must ensure that any nuclear power plant built in this country can withstand a catastrophic impact and abides by the absolute highest standards for safety and security,” said Rep. Markey. “The public must have confidence that new reactors can be built safely, and the NRC must demonstrate that it is addressing this issue with the thoroughness and seriousness required.”

The concerns raised by Ma were included in a “Non-Concurrence” statement of dissent about the NRC’s positive safety evaluation of the AP1000 that said the material was excessively “brittle” and computer models to test its safety were inadequate.