The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is smaller, cheaper and is in high demand all over the world. But is it safer? Host Bruce Gellerman looks into a review from a top American nuclear regulator that warned the AP1000 is “brittle as a glass cup.”
GELLERMAN: It’s now official: the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has been raised to the highest level of atomic crisis, on par with Chernobyl.
CURWOOD: Chernobyl and the meltdown at Three Mile Island a few years earlier derailed the US nuclear industry. Over the past three decades, not a single new reactor has been built here. But now, even in the shadow of Fukushima, in the United States a nuclear renaissance is in the making. In fact, it’s on the fast track.
GELLERMAN: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just days away from closing public comment and approving an innovative design for a new nuclear plant: the AP 1000. It’s being built by Westinghouse, which is owned by the Japanese company Toshiba.
ADVERTISEMENT: Westinghouse Electric Company, the pioneer in nuclear energy, once again sets a new industry standard with the introduction of the AP 1000, safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace.
GELLERMAN: The pressurized water reactor at the heart of the AP 1000 has been used in scores of nuclear plants over the decades. What’s new is the building surrounding the reactor and the safety features built into it. Ed Cummins is Vice President and Chief Technologist for Westinghouse.
CUMMINS: The typical plants in the U.S. are about twice as good as the NRC requirement, and the AP 1000 is 200 times as good, so 100 times better than the current operating plants.
GELLERMAN: So what makes this the safest and most economical nuclear power plant in worldwide commercial marketplace?
CUMMINS: I think the biggest distinction of the AP 1000 is that it is passively safe. So all of the things that challenge the reactor system are mitigated by natural phenomenon, like gravity and evaporation and condensation and natural processes. No AC power is required.
GELLERMAN: In an accident, a giant tank above the AP 1000 reactor filled with three quarters of a million gallons of water would drip down, cooling of the core. For three days, gravity - not electricity - would do the job. It was the failure of the backup diesel generators and batteries that led to the disaster at Fukushima. Cummins says that wouldn’t happen with the AP 1000.
CUMMINS: There would be no core damage, there would be no spent fuel damage, no radiation emitted, no evacuation, none of the aspects of the Fukushima accident would have occurred with the AP 1000.
GELLERMAN: Safer, says Cummins, and cheaper. The massive safety shield buildings surrounding the nuclear components of the AP 1000 will be built using prefab Lego-like blocks, dramatically cutting on-site costs.
CUMMINS: And so if you build portions of the plant in a factory and you ship those portions to the site, then that’s a lot less work and a lot less time that occurs on the site to build the plant.
[CLIP: Voice speaking Chinese]
GELLERMAN: Westinghouse has already shipped four AP 1000s to China. A Chinese video shows a huge reactor vessel under construction. Here in the United States, utilities in the Southeast have ordered six AP 1000s. However before construction can begin the NRC has to give final approval to the design. But critics charge, in cutting costs to build the AP 1000, Westinghouse has cut corners on safety.
WARREN: The AP 1000 might be considered safe as long as it remains on the drawing board and nobody actually tries to build one.
GELLERMAN: Jim Warren is Executive Director of NC WARN. It’s part of an alliance of anti-nuclear organizations that’s petitioned the NRC to slow down the approval of the AP 1000. Over the years, the NRC sent Westinghouse designers back to the drawing boards 18 times, saying the reactor’s safety shield building didn’t meet fundamental engineering standards. But now the NRC concludes there’s quote, “reasonable assurance that the revised design can be built without undue risk to the health and safety of the public.”
But not everyone at the NRC agrees. Dr. John Ma, the commission’s most senior reactor structural engineer in charge of evaluating the shield building, has written a strongly worded report charging that the safety shield isn’t ductile: it won’t bend under stress, and that could lead to catastrophe. Dr. Ma declined to talk to us, but here’s Jim Warren of NC WARN paraphrasing his official report.
WARREN: Dr. Ma says, in particular, that they have underestimated earthquake risks, and he says that the material they’re proposing to use would be too brittle and would, in his words, “shatter like a glass cup.”
GELLERMAN: Shatter like a glass cup. What does he mean by that, do you know?
WARREN: He’s saying that instead of a tornado-driven missile poking a hole in the building, it would be so brittle it would shatter and collapse.
CUMMINS: Well that’s not true.
GELLERMAN: Ed Cummins of Westinghouse.
CUMMINS: Imagine this building: It’s got on each side three-quarter inches of steel, and then it has three feet of concrete between them. It’s impossible to imagine that that is going to fail like a glass.
GELLERMAN: The NRC commissioners agree with Westinghouse. Despite Dr. Ma’s objections, the overall conclusion of the NRC is that the AP 1000 design meets federal safety standards. Thomas Bergman is the NRC’s director of engineering.
BERGMAN: The “shatter like a glass cup” isn’t a good analogy. The steel itself is very ductile, and it wouldn’t really shatter.
GELLERMAN: So how do you resolve something like that? I mean, Dr. Ma is a very senior person at the NRC.
BERGMAN: That’s why we have the non-concurrence process, and the agency – I don’t know how familiar you are with our structure, but we have what we call the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, ACRS.
BERGMAN: They also independently assessed the design and hired their experts. And their letter on the shield building is publically available, where they also agree with the staff conclusions regarding the AP 1000’s shield building.
GELLERMAN: The NRC does acknowledge that the AP 1000 could be built stronger and more ductile but it’s not necessary to meet current safety standards. Again, Westinghouse Vice President Ed Cummins:
CUMMINS: Yes, I suppose that you could build anything stronger. There is really not a justification for building it stronger when we have built it strong enough.
GELLERMAN: Opponents aren’t giving up. They’re asking the NRC to delay final approval of the AP 1000 design. Jim Warren of NC WARN says public safety is at risk and so is more than eight billion dollars in federal construction loan guarantees that is going to the Southeast facilities that have ordered AP 1000s.
WARREN: The NRC has to require a return to safety being the priority at these plants and stop putting economics as the priority. That’s the only reason why all these companies chose the AP 1000 across the U.S. South, and yet, they still are running into massive cost overruns.
GELLERMAN: The NRC expects to grant final approval to the Westinghouse AP 1000 design sometime this summer, with construction to begin soon after.
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