The February 9 granting by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of combined construction and operating licenses for two nuclear plants to be built in Vogtle, Georgia -both Westinghouse AP1000s. It is the first license for a new nuclear power facility in the United States since 1978 and the culmination of a scheme developed by nuclear promoters 20 years ago. Vogtle 3 and 4 are projected to come online in 2016–2017. The original construction plan for the Vogtle 1 & 2 reactors projected to cost US$660 million total. The construction cost ended up being US$8.37 billion in 1989-a 1200% cost overrun.
The strategy for what happened early February was set with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The vote in the House of Representatives was 381-to-37. “As the bill wound its way through the Senate and the House, the nuclear industry won nearly every vote that mattered, proving that Congress remains captive to industry lobbying and political contributions over public opinion,” reported NIRS then. (The same could be said about Congress now.) The New York Times said, “Nuclear lobbyists called the bill their biggest victory in Congress since the Three Mile Island accident.”
The measure, signed into law by the first President Bush, provided for “one-step” nuclear plant licensing. Previously, there were hearings held in the area where a nuclear plant would be built -one on granting a construction license and, later, a second on whether to issue an operating license.
This presented a big problem for the nuclear industry -not that the Atomic Energy Commission or its successor, the Nuclear Energy Commission, ever turned down an application for a construction or operating license. But at the hearings for a construction license major issues arose -such as, with the proposed Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, New York, the impossibility of evacuation off the crowded island in the event of a major accident, important in the eventual stoppage of Shoreham. And at operating license hearings, whistle-blowers would emerge, often engineers and others involved in the construction of the plant, going public with testimony about faults, defects and dangers.
Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, instead of these hearings, the NRC, sitting in Washington far from the areas and people to be impacted, would be authorized to grant in one move a construction and operating license. That’s what the NRC did early February for the two AP1000 nuclear plants that the Southern Company plans to build at its Vogtle site.
Westinghouse said in the 1990s that with this “one-step” process, it would take but five years after NRC approval for an AP1000 to be completed. Indeed, that was what the nuclear industry was saying after the approval about the Georgia project: Vogtle 3 and 4 are projected to come online in 2016–2017.
The reactors chosen for the Vogtle expansion are of a new design—AP1000s by Westinghouse—that has never been built in the United States (not surprising, given that the most recently used U.S. design was deployed in the 1970s) or completed anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the NRC only approved the AP1000 design in December 2011. That means the reactors have never been tested under actual working conditions.
Westinghouse, before the Energy Policy Act of 1992, touted its AP1000 as an “advanced” nuclear power plant. The act specifically greased the skids for “advanced” nuclear power plants. It featured a section titled “Subtitle C-Advanced Nuclear Reactors” that stated: “The purposes of this subtitle are (1) to require the Secretary [of Energy] to carry out civilian nuclear programs in a way that will lead toward the commercial availability of advanced nuclear reactor technologies; and (2) to authorize such activities to further the timely availability of advanced nuclear reactor technologies.”
To push the new system along, NuStart, which calls itself “a consortium for new nuclear energy development,” was formed. NuStart, says further on its website, that it has been “formed to respond to a Department of Energy issued solicitation to demonstrate the NRC’s COL [Construction and Operating License] process.” NuStart has been working closely with utilities for them to utilize the one-step licensing process and build new “advanced” nuclear plants. As to its funding, its website says that “NuStart is participating in a 50-50 cost sharing program” with the Department of Energy.
Thus U.S. tax dollars have been and are being used for a system all but eliminating public input to get new “advanced” nuclear power plants up and running -and fast.
The chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, voted against the licensing on February 9. He cited the need to “learn the lessons from Fukushima.” Jaczko stated: “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.” But the other four NRC commissioners -nuclear power zealots all -voted for the licensing.
There will be challenges to the licensing -which beyond being the first issuance of combined construction and operating licenses is the first time since the 1970s that the NRC has given approval for a new nuclear power plant. There were no applications to build new nuclear plants as atomic energy, rightfully, went into a deep eclipse for decades.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced: “Our challenge maintains that the NRC is violating federal laws by issuing the license without fully considering the important lessons of the catastrophic Fukushima accident.” It will also raise various safety issues involving the AP1000.
Nine organizations, including the Southern Alliance, said they would sue to try to block the license because the commission had not adequately analyzed the new reactors' design for hazards in response to last year's calamity at Fukushima.
As to finances, not only was -and is- taxpayer money being used to facilitate the new nuclear plant licensing scheme, it is the basis for their construction. Wall Street is wary of nuclear power. So the Department of Energy is providing the Southern Company with US$8.3 billion in taxpayer-based loan guarantees for its new nuclear plants, part of a multi-billion dollar loan guarantee fund that has been established for new nuclear power plants.
In a sales brochure for the AP1000 -online at www.AP1000.westinghousenuclear.com-Westinghouse trumpets it as “Simple, Safe, Innovative.” Throughout the brochure is also the line: “The Nuclear Renaissance Starts Here.” But although the AP1000 might be of a different design, even the brochure acknowledges severe accidents can happen. “The AP1000 is designed to mitigate a postulated severe accident such as a core melt,” says the brochure. Mitigate, not eliminate.
It also includes a “Probabilistic Risk Assessment” by the NRC on the possibility of “Core Damage Frequency” and “Large Release Frequency” at an AP1000. For both, the odds are given as very low, reminiscent of the very low odds NASA once set for a catastrophic accident involving one of its space shuttles -until the Challenger blew up.
“It follows,” says Westinghouse, “that the AP1000 also improves upon the probability of large release goals for advanced reactor designs in the event of a severe accident scenario to retain the molten core within the reactor vessel.” Improves upon -not eliminates the release of catastrophic amounts of radioactivity.
If Americans are anxious about a disaster involving the AP1000 -and want wind and solar and other safe, clean, renewable energy technologies which they can live with instead- well, under the new system, that’s too bad. With the new nuclear licensing system -devised 20 years ago and now moving ahead despite Chernobyl and Fukushima and the availability of energy alternatives that render nuclear power unnecessary -the citizenry and what they want are to be excluded.
Loan guarantees under scrutiny.
President Obama has already promised Southern Company $8.3 billion in tax-funded loan guarantees towards the $14 billion cost of the proposed reactors. These taxpayer-insured loans would be lent at 0-.5% interest! The U.S. loan guarantee program has a 50% default rate history, and indeed, headlines have been captured lately by the failure of much smaller companies with much, much smaller loans. Several members of Congress are now bulldogging a recent audit of DOE's loan guarantee program which is currently under White House review. Chief among their complaints are the secrecy of DOE with respect to its selection process and the terms of the loan guarantees.
With the decision on the reactor license, the White House is expected to finalize its review of the loan guarantees program very soon and make a decision on whether to give Southern Company the coveted US$8.3 billion tax-funded loan at a rate of from 0% to .5% interest! Read more and sign a petition at: http://www.nonukesyall.org/Action_Obama.html#action
Stop nuclear tax!
Progress Energy plans to cancel the main development and construction contract for its proposed 2 unit nuclear plant (the same Westinghouse AP1000 design as allowed to be built in Georgia), in Levy County, Florida, but its customers will have to keep paying in advance anyway. The move could add hundreds of millions of dollars to what customers are already paying, if Progress decides to restart the project. It also raises questions about the "pay as you go" advance fee set up by the Florida state Legislature explicitly to speed up nuclear plant construction and save money.
Progress spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said the utility will continue to seek federal approval for the US$20 billion project, and "we'll reassess the project once we receive the (operating) license.'' Grant would not discuss the reason Progress wants to cancel the contract.
So far, Progress Energy has spent US$1.1 billion on the development and planning of the Levy County nuclear project: US$545 million coming from its customers through the end of 2011. Progress' 1.6 million customers in Florida will eventually pay the remaining US$555 million, too.
The advance fee resulted from legislation passed by state lawmakers in 2006 to allow utilities to collect money from customers for future construction of nuclear power plants. It was considered a major shift in policy for building new power plants. Proponents said paying for the projects "as you go" would speed up construction and save money on the financing of the plants. But the Levy plant has not met either of those goals.
In 2006, Progress said the project would cost US$4 billion to US$6 billion and open in 2016. The price jumped to US$10 billion in 2007. In 2008, the utility said the project would include two reactors, instead of one, and cost US$17 billion. A year later, the price remained the same, but the start date moved to 2018. In 2010, the date moved to 2021, and last year price projections reached as high as US$22 billion. Under nuclear fee law, none of the money Progress has spent on Levy has to be refunded, even if the utility doesn't build the plant.
Tampa Bay Times, 26 January & 9 February 2012
Sources: This article is based on Karl Grossman's article The Nuclear Juggernaut, Counterpunch, 13 February 2012, with additions of Nuclear Watch Southeast and a Union for Concerned Scientists fact sheet on Vogtle, available at http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/Georgia-nuclear-fac...
Contact: Karl Grossman, 13 February 2012