Nuclear Regulatory Commission says planned Levy nuclear reactor has flaws

10/16/09 Seán Kinane
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Yesterday the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the design chosen for nuclear power plants at two sites in Florida is unacceptable because it cannot withstand hurricane winds. Two Florida companies are proposing to build new nuclear power plants designed by Westinghouse.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote in a letter to Westinghouse yesterday that the design requires modifications before it is considered safe enough to meet regulations. Scott Burnell is a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Burnell: “The staff is concerned that the shield building, as its currently proposed, would not be able to operate properly – or it wouldn’t be able to perform its intended functions – if you subjected it to severe events such as earthquakes or hurricanes or tornados.”

Progress Energy Florida has selected the Westinghouse AP1000 design for two nuclear units it intends to build on a site in Levy County, north of Tampa. Florida Power and Light intends to build the new Westinghouse reactor at its Turkey Point site south of Miami. According to Burnell, the questionable component is supposed to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination in the event of an accident.

Burnell: "The NRC's requirements at their most basic, are that safety related structures and components in a nuclear power plant have to be able to carry out their safety functions even under severe conditions. And again, the staff's concern is that for the shield building, that is currently being proposed, it is not at all certain that the shield building would be able to do its job if you subjected it to severe conditions."

Progress Energy Florida spokesperson Suzanne Grant says they are aware of the matter and have been working with Westinghouse and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resolve the issues. She doesn’t think it will affect the timing of construction or opening of their Levy County reactors late next decade.

Grant: "Well first it is important to remember that the NRC review is a standard part of the design certification process for Westinghouse AP1000. So, this is part of that standard design to make sure that the process is moving forward the way it should be. At this point we don't know what the impact of this determination will have on our planned nuclear units, if any. Back in May we announced a slight schedule shift for the commercial operation dates of our planned units. We were originally planning them to go into service, the first one in 2016 and the second one in 2018 and we have shifted that time period by a minimum of about 20 months."

Many activists are opposing the reactors for environmental and economic reasons. The Sierra Club’s Florida staff director Frank Jackalone calls the news about the faulty design “an enormous blow” to Progress Energy and to Florida Power & Light.

Jackalone: "It means they have to go back to the drawing board; it is a substantial delay and I don't think it is worth the cost. With every delay, and I am sure this will be the first of many. The cost of that nuclear power plant will go up and up. Progress Energy and FPL have sweetheart deals now with the state of Florida in which they can pass all of thees costs on to the consumer and that is really a travesty. We should not permit that."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Burnell says the ball is now in Westinghouse’s court but the design will not be approved until it is satisfactory.

Burnell: "The company will come up with an approach to addressing the staff's concerns. It is up to Westinghouse to determine what it wants to do. We are not going to suggest any options since that is not our place to do that. Once Westinghouse comes back to us with a proposal we would then consider how that proposal would impact the schedules that are currently being considered for approving both the AP1000 design and for the applications to build and operate the reactor at sites in Florida and other places in the Southeast."

Nuke plants should be scrapped in favor of solar energy, according to the Sierra Club’s Jackalone.

Jackalone: "I think it is time for Progress Energy and FPL to pull the plug on their proposed nuclear power plants. They need to save themselves a lot of time, and trouble, and money. They need to save money for their rate payers as well. They need immediately to start looking at large scale solar projects in ways they can help small businesses, large businesses, and home owners make their buildings more energy efficient."

Letter From NRC to Westinghouse

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The real travesty is the sweetheart deal allowed by the Fla. Public Service Commission by which electric utilities can pass on their planning and construction costs to their customers before the proposed plants ever come on line, and even if they never do. It distorts the entire free market economy. There needs to be an overhaul of thinking and/or members on the PSC, and candidates for state office should think about that.