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 completion dates.
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 2012.
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 Point.
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.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared.