Regulators approve nuclear reactor design for Southeast utilities

December 23, 2011 By Curtis Morgan

Federal regulators on Thursday signed off on a next-generation nuclear reactor slated for Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point plant and five other utilities in the Southeast, paving the way for construction of the first new reactors in the U.S. in three decades.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approval of the Westinghouse AP 1000 design was a major milestone for the nuclear power industry, which hasn't built a new reactor since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.

It also moved FPL an important step closer in its plans to expand its sprawling nuclear plant on South Biscayne Bay with a design that the industry and regulators tout as simpler and safer than the nation's aging reactors, yet robust enough to withstand a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

"The design provides enhanced safety margins ... and also has been assessed to ensure it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials," said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko in a statement after the unanimous approval in Washington.

Opponents of the AP 1000, which has emerged as the leading model of choice in the nuclear power industry's expansion plans, bristled at the decision.

"The NRC has presented its holiday gifts to the nuclear industry," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-N.Y., a longtime critic of the industry and its watchdog agency.

His comments echoed concerns from environmental groups, who contend the NRC "fast-tracked" the AP 1000 without thoroughly addressing potential safety concerns or incorporating lessons learned from the March meltdown of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, disabled by an earthquake and tsunami.

"Yet again, the NRC is rubber-stamping the industry's plans," said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who has campaigned against FPL's plans to add two new reactors to the two existing ones at Turkey Point. FPL has said it needs them to supply power for future growth.

In May, citing "technical issues," the NRC had delayed design approval after the commission's lead structural engineer questioned whether a reactor shield building intended to be the first line of defense from radiation release was too brittle, cautioning it might "shatter like a glass cup" under impacts from a plane strike, earthquakes, tornadoes or objects tossed by hurricanes.

Arnie Gunderson, an outside expert hired by environmental groups, also warned the design might be vulnerable to rust that could cause dangerous holes and cracks in the steel reactor containment vessel - a particular problem in the marine environment of Turkey Point. He also argued the system's "passive" emergency cooling system, which circulates outside air, could send radiation leaked during an accident into the atmosphere.

Another study, commissioned by NC Warn, a North Carolina anti-nuclear group, and Friends of the Earth, argued the safety margin for an accidental high pressure build-up inside the reactor was dangerously slim.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the agency had analyzed those concerns and dozens more.

In a statement released earlier this month before the formal vote, Jaczko, who ordered the delay in May, wrote that he was satisfied that changes to the shield building had met NRC standards and the design is "sufficiently safe."

Though the NRC approved the design, the agency reserved the option of requiring additional safeguards later based on a study of the Fukushima catastrophe. A task force analyzing the Japanese plant's meltdown recommended approving the AP 1000 anyway because no major changes were likely, Burnell said.

The design, he said, is "already capable of dealing with the key issue of Fukushima, which is losing electrical power at the site."

The AP 1000's signature feature is a giant water tank holding 780,000 gallons of water atop the reactor building. In the event of accidental power loss, it is designed to automatically kick on. The "passive" system relies on gravity to deliver water, and on evaporation and condensation to re-circulate it until generators or outside power can be used.

"Even with no operator action and a complete loss of all on-site and off-site power, the AP1000 will safely shut down and remain cool for up to 72 hours, allowing significant time for restoration activities," FPL spokesman Michael Waldron said in a statement Thursday. FPL, Westinghouse Electric and industry proponents say the AP 1000 had undergone unprecedented and "arduous" scrutiny over a design approval process that originally started in 2002. Westinghouse revised the design 19 times to address NRC demands, including beefing up the shield building.

"The AP1000 is the reactor design that will set the foundation for the next generation of nuclear plants in the U.S.," said Marilyn Kray, president of NuStart Energy Development, in a statement issued by Westinghouse, which is owned by the Toshiba Corp. Nustart is a consortium of utilities and reactor vendors.

With the approval, the AP 1000 stands to be in wide use in coming decades.

China already is building four and is scheduled to flick the switch on the first new-generation reactors in 2013. In the U.S., the decision will allow utilities in Georgia and South Carolina - furthest along in preliminary construction - to formally apply for licenses to built two new reactors at each site. Projects also are planned in North Carolina and Alabama.

In Florida, Progress Energy has also applied to build two AP 1000s at a new plant in Levy County. FPL hopes to secure its license for two new reactors at Turkey Point by June 2014. If the utility decides to go ahead with a project that it expects to cost from $12 billion to $18 billion, the new reactors would be scheduled to go online in 2022 and 2023.

Jim Warren, executive director of NC Warn, said customers and taxpayers will now be on the hook for billions of dollars in additional costs if the NRC orders future safety changes to the AP 1000.

Similar cost overruns plagued the industry in the 1970s and derailed dozens of projects.

"If you want to move the kitchen around, you just ask the contractor," he said. "It's something else to do it with a nuclear power plant, especially an experimental model that no one has completed."

Explore further: GE defends nuclear plant design

Related Stories

GE defends nuclear plant design

March 18, 2011

General Electric defended its 40 year old Mark 1 reactors at the center of Japan's nuclear crisis Friday, saying that early questions about reactor's safety had long been addressed.

New U.S. nuclear reactors unlikely soon: physicist

April 15, 2011

( -- Japanese officials increased the nuclear crisis level at the Fukushima plant on Monday to match that of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But, unlike the Soviet disaster, most of the radiation from the Fukushima ...

Probing Question: Are today's nuclear power plants safe?

February 23, 2007

Burning fossil fuels to make electricity releases many tons of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Today, as the United States and other nations search for "greener" ways of generating energy, nuclear ...

Radioactive water leaked at second Japan plant

December 11, 2011

A Japanese nuclear plant leaked 1.8 tonnes of radioactive water from its cooling system, the government said, heightening safety worries as an atomic crisis continues at another plant.

Fukushima raises questions about new Finnish reactor

June 21, 2011

More than 5,000 hard-hat workers swarm over a sprawling nuclear facility in western Finland to build OL3 -- touted as the safest nuclear reactor in the world -- a claim which has come under scrutiny following Japan's nuclear ...

No uncontrolled reaction at Fukushima: operator

November 3, 2011

The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima atomic plant Thursday played down fears of an uncontrolled chain reaction at the site, despite the discovery of evidence of recent nuclear fission.

Recommended for you

'Droneboarding' takes off in Latvia

January 22, 2017

Skirted on all sides by snow-clad pine forests, Latvia's remote Lake Ninieris would be the perfect picture of winter tranquility—were it not for the huge drone buzzing like a swarm of angry bees as it zooms above the solid ...

Singapore 2G switchoff highlights digital divide

January 22, 2017

When Singapore pulls the plug on its 2G mobile phone network this year, thousands of people could be stuck without a signal—digital have-nots left behind by the relentless march of technology.

Making AI systems that see the world as humans do

January 19, 2017

A Northwestern University team developed a new computational model that performs at human levels on a standard intelligence test. This work is an important step toward making artificial intelligence systems that see and understand ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (4) Dec 23, 2011
3.3 / 5 (7) Dec 23, 2011
If any of the anti-nuclear activists can design a new nuclear power station from scratch, I'll listen to them. Meanwhile, they are so full of hype, propaganda and- no apologies- full of shit to push their paid agenda of keeping everyone slaved to oil and keeping nuclear as the preserve of the military and a trillion brain cells short on technical expertise.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2011
The AP 1000's signature feature is a giant water tank holding 780,000 gallons of water atop the reactor building. [...] "Even with no operator action and a complete loss of all on-site and off-site power, the AP1000 will safely shut down and remain cool for up to 72 hours,

A much better solution is to dig a hole in the ground, larger than the reactor building and open to the sky at the top. Inside the hole you erect the reactor building, with all the components that critically need cooling lower than the surface of the nearby river or lake. You put control rooms mostly outside the hole, above sea level.

This way there's no 72 hour time limit. No matter what unforeseen catastrophe puts society or technology in disarray, there is always highly efficient cooling available, for any time span. And cooling is the one crucial need. When there's good cooling, the spread of contaminants is negligible.
2.7 / 5 (3) Dec 24, 2011
I am all for renewables, bu until it is clearly proven in practice that they are capable of meeting the energy (not just electricity) needs of a modern high-energy usage economy, getting rid of nuclear would be an extremely stupid, criminal negligence.

Thus anyone who cares about the environment and the energy future of the US must welcome this decision.
4.3 / 5 (3) Dec 24, 2011
It becomes clearer and clearer that, over the next 50 odd years, renewables nuclear is the least worst way of reducing our fossil fuel dependence. Nuclear buys us time to shift toward nearly 100% renewables, with fossil fuels and nuclear reserves maintained for emergencies.

Though I've read thorium reactors could provide all of our energy needs in to and beyond the next millennium.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 24, 2011
Though I've read thorium reactors could provide all of our energy needs in to and beyond the next millennium.

Correct. Even when fossil fuels run out and renewables fail to deliver, our energy future is bright with advanced nuclear.
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2011
At the rate illegal immigration is occuring, we'll have to "replace" an additionaly 10% of our infrastructure every 10 years just to keep up with all the illegals.

We'll need a couple dozen nuke plants per decade just to keep pace with the growing demand.

So what is likely is that coal plants won't even be "replaced" at all, until they just plain break down and wear out or something.

We need to enforce our borders and deport all illegals, and their anchor babies immediately.

Aliens are destroying our country. We have about 30 million of them in the country right now. They out number our MILITARY about ten to one. It's a damn invasion force of Mexicans standing in unemployment lines and free medical care, for goodness sakes.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2012
Bring on the crybabies, 99% ers, occupiers, and 60's throwback counter culturalists banging their green tambourines and drums in protest.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.