A devastating blow to the much-hyped revival of atomic power
has been delivered by an unlikely source -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The NRC says the �standardized� designs on which the entire premise of
returning nuclear power to center stage is based have massive holes in them,
and may not be ready for approval for years to come.
Delivered by one of America�s most notoriously docile
agencies, the NRC�s warning essentially says: that all cost estimates for new
nuclear reactors -- and all licensing and construction schedules -- are
completely up for grabs, and have no reliable basis in fact. Thus any
comparisons between future atomic reactors and renewable technologies are moot
at best. And any �hard number� basis for independent financing for future nukes
may not be available for years to come, if ever.
These key points have been raised in searing testimony
before state regulators by Jim Warren of the North Carolina Waste and Awareness
Reduction Network and Tom Clements of the South Carolina Friends of the Earth,
and by others now challenging proposed state-based financing for new
Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors. The NRC gave conditional �certification� to this
�standardized� design in 2004, allowing design work to continue. But as
recently as June 27, the NRC has issued written warnings that hundreds of key
design components remain without official approval. Indeed, Westinghouse has
been forced to actually withdraw numerous key designs, throwing the entire
permitting process into chaos.
The catastrophic outcome of similar problems has already
become tangible. After two years under construction, the first �new generation�
French reactor being built in Finland is already more than two years behind
schedule, and more than $2.5 billion over budget. The scenario is reminiscent
of the economic disaster that hit scores of �first generation� reactors, which
came in massively over budget and, in many cases, decades behind promised
In North and South Carolina, public interest groups are
demanding the revocation of some $230 million in pre-construction costs already
approved by state regulators for two proposed Duke Energy reactors. In both
those states, as well as in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, Westinghouse AP-1000
reactors have been presented to regulatory commissions to be financed by
ratepayers as they are being built.
This astounding pro-utility scheme forces electric consumers
to pay billions of dollars for nuclear plants that may never operate, and whose
costs are indeterminate. Sometimes called Construction Work in Progress, it
lets utilities raise rates to pay for site clearing, project planning, and down
payments on large equipment and heavy reactor components, such as pressure
vessels, pumps and generators, that can involve hundreds of millions of
dollars, even before the projects get final federal approval. The process in
essence gives utilities an incentive to drive up construction costs as much as
they can. It allows them to force ratepayers to cover legal fees incurred by
the utilities to defend themselves against lawsuits by those very ratepayers.
And the public is stuck with the bill for whatever is spent, even if the
reactor never opens -- or if it melts down before it recoups its construction
costs, as did Pennsylvania�s Three Mile Island Unit Two in 1979, which
self-destructed after just three months of operation.
According to Warren and Clements, Duke Energy and its
cohorts have �filed some 6,500 pages of Westinghouse�s technical design
documents as the major component of applications� to build new reactors. �Of
the 172 interconnected Westinghouse documents,� say NCWARN and FOE, �only 21
have been certified.� And most of what has been certified, they add, rely on
systems that are unapproved, and that are key to the guts of the reactor,
including such major components as the �reactor building, control room, cooling
system, engineering designs, plant-wide alarm systems, piping and conduit.�
In other words, despite millions of dollars of high-priced
hype, the �new generation� of �standardized design� power plants actually does
not exist. The plans for these reactors have not been finalized by the builders
themselves, nor have they been approved by the regulators. There is no
operating prototype of a Westinghouse AP-1000 from which to draw actual data about
how safely these plants might actually operate, what their environmental impact
might be, or what they might cost to build or run.
In fact, as the NRC�s June 27 letter notes, Westinghouse has
been forced to withdraw key technical documents from the regulatory process.
The NRC says this means design approval for the AP-1000 might not come until
The problem extends to other designs. According to Michael
Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, the �Evolutionary
Power Reactor� proposed for Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, �is way behind in
certification� causing delays in the licensing process. Similar problems have
arisen with the �Economic Simplified Boiling War Reactor� design proposed for
North Anna, Virginia and Fermi, Michigan. �All of these utilities seem to want
standardization for the other guy, not for themselves, so most of them are
making changes to the �standardized� designs, says Mariotte. �Even the ABWR,�
being planned for a site in south Texas, which has actually been built before, �has
design issues� that have caused delays.
The problem, says Mariotte, �is that the NRC is still trying
to go ahead and do licensing even with the designs not certified. This is going
to lead to a big mess later on.�
But in the meantime, Public Service Commissions like the one
in Florida, have given preliminary approval to reactor proposals whose
projected costs have more than doubled in just one year. Florida Power &
Light�s two proposed reactors at Turkey Point, on the border of the Everglades
National Park, are listed as costing somewhere between $6 billion and $9
billion. FP&L refuses to commit to a firm price, and is demanding south
Florida ratepayers foot an unknowable bill for gargantuan projects whose costs
are virtually certain to skyrocket long before the NRC approves the actual
reactor designs. By contrast, the �huge� preliminary deal just reached between
Florida, environmentalists and U.S. Sugar to buy some 180,000 acres of land to
save the Everglades is now estimated at less than $2 billion, less than
one-sixth the minimum estimated cost of the two reactors proposed for Turkey
In the larger picture, the depth of this scam is staggering.
With no finalized design, and no firm price tag, a second generation of nuclear
power plants is now being put on the tab of southeastern citizens whose rates
have already begun to skyrocket. These reactor projects cannot get private
financing, and cannot proceed without either massive federal subsidies and loan
guarantees, or a flood of these state-based give-aways. They also cannot get
private insurance against future melt-downs, and have no solution for their
radioactive waste problem. Current estimates for finishing the proposed Yucca
Mountain national waste repository, also yet to be licensed, are soaring toward
$100 billion, even though it, too, may never open.
By contrast, firm costs for proposed wind farms, solar
panels, increased efficiency and other green sources are proven and reliable.
These projects are easily financed by private investors lining up to become
involved. Some $6 billion in new wind farms are under construction or on order
in the United States alone. They are established and profitable, and can in
many cases can be up and running in less than a year.
The high-profile campaign to paint atomic energy as some
kind of answer to America�s energy problems has hit the iceberg of its economic
impossibilities. The atomic �renaissance� has no tangible approved design, and
no firm construction or operating costs to present. There are no reliable new
reactor construction schedules, except to know that it will be at least ten
years before the first one could conceivably come on line, and that its price
tag is unknowable.
In short, the �nuclear renaissance� is perched atop a
gigantic technical and economic chasm that looms larger every day, and that
could soon swallow the entire idea of building more reactors.
used in this story include:
June 27 letter to Westinghouse indicating more design delays.
website on the AP1000 design.
NC WARN and FOE
Utilities Commission docket on Duke�s request to incur �preconstruction costs�
can be found by search for docket E-7 Sub 819.
PSC docket on Duke�s request.
news release, with links to the SC & NC motions.
explanation of certification.
Carolina PSC notice on SCE&G petition.
by Tom Clements.
Harvey Wasserman�s SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED
EARTH is at www.solartopia.org. This article was originally published by The Free