Aug 3, 2011: Don’t Allow New Nuclear Reactor Construction Before Safety Questions Resolved

August 3, 2011: Don’t Allow New Nuclear Reactor Construction Before Safety Questions Resolved
Rule change could undermine current safety regulations, limit public participation in licensing decisions
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this week sent a letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Greg Jaczko urging the NRC not to approve a proposed rule change that would allow companies to begin construction of new nuclear power reactors that utilize the still-unapproved Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor design before the final rule for the reactor design is issued by the NRC. Under current regulations, construction, including safety-related construction of systems and structures that need to function during an accident, can only begin upon final approval by the NRC of a reactor design. In May, the NRC acknowledged outstanding safety-related issues with the AP1000 design and asked Westinghouse for resolution before the Commission moved forward with final certification. Electric utility Southern Company is currently waiting for final approval for the AP1000 design to receive NRC authorization to begin safety-related construction of a proposed new reactor at its existing Vogtle site in Georgia. The proposed rule change would allow Southern Company to begin safety-related reactor construction at Vogtle before NRC staff incorporates changes in the final rule that would be made if the NRC approves the Westinghouse AP1000 design.
Putting the public in potential danger by relaxing the application of safety regulations to help the nuclear industry meet deadlines is simply irresponsible,” wrote Rep. Markey to Chairman Jackzo. “Not only would it be dangerous to approve this rule change, but seriously considering it would divert limited NRC resources away from work on safety, which is central to fulfilling the NRC’s mission to protect the public.”
Rep. Markey’s letter to the NRC can be found HERE .
In a March 7 letter to the NRC, Rep. Markey wrote to Chairman Jaczko urging the Commission not to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 design until serious safety concerns were addressed. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff, Dr. John Ma, had warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft. The shield building has the critical safety function of preventing damage to the reactor that could cause fuel meltdowns and radiation releases. On May 20, Chairman Jaczko acknowledged the outstanding safety issues with the design when he said: “That work has led to more questions regarding the AP1000’s shield building, as well as the peak accident pressures expected within containment. The agency has made it clear to Westinghouse that it must prove to our satisfaction that the company has appropriately and completely documented the adequacy of the design.”
According to Dr. Ma’s written filing related to the NRC decision, there are several major problems with the AP1000 shield building:

  • The AP 1000 shield building failed physical tests which showed it to be brittle, leading Dr. Ma to conclude that it could shatter “like a glass cup” upon impact.
  • Inadequate computer simulations were used to “prove” the reactor shield is “strong enough” despite it being mostly made out of a brittle material. Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, asked by NRC to review Westinghouse’s computer simulation results, said it contained “numerous confusing, misleading, or erroneous statements.”
  • Earthquake forces may have been underestimated by Westinghouse, and the NRC has accepted this argument by the company, even though it appears not to be supported by science as published in peer-reviewed journals.

In 2010, Rep. Markey requested a Government Accountability Office investigation into the resiliency of nuclear power plants to earthquakes, other natural disasters, and climate change impacts.
In March, Rep. Markey introduced H.R. 1242, the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011 , to impose a moratorium on nuclear power plant licenses, license extensions, and new reactor designs until new safety requirements are in place that reflect the lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdowns.