While questions remain about the unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor facility, the result of a massive earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago, the one certainty seems to be that the world is witnessing one of the worst nuclear catastrophes in history.
Around the world, officials in the United States, Germany, China, and other countries have called for delays in reactor development and reviews of existing plant safety.
“I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we’ve got to kind of quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan,” Senator Joe Lieberman said on CBS’ Face the Nation on March 13.
Lieberman was one of several prominent officials to make such statements on the Sunday show circuit.
Sara Barczak, Safe Energy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, echoed that sentiment.
“We think it’s a sensible thing to do for everybody to take pause from the Obama administration down to the Public Service Commission and Southern Company. The reality is lessons are going to be learned from this, just as lessons were learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl,” says Barczak.
Despite the calls for renewed analyses around the world, Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power contend that the Plant Vogtle expansion — the planned construction of two additional reactors at the facility in Waynesboro, Ga. — will continue as scheduled.
“We are committed to the project and completing the units on schedule and on budget,” says Beth Thomas, a spokesperson for Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of Southern Company. “We’re certainly monitoring the events in Japan and our thoughts and prayers are with the people there.”
Even if the project is on schedule and budget currently, there are questions whether it can remain so.
If history is any indication, the increased scrutiny on reactor safety could lead to dramatic increases in the cost of the Vogtle expansion. The first two reactors at the facility were unfinished when the Three Mile Island incident occurred, causing construction costs to spike ten-fold.
According to Barczak, the only people who know whether the project is actually on schedule are utility company officials, as well as members of the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), who are responsible for reviewing the project costs every six months.
“The public versions [of reports filed by the utility company with the PSC] that are not labeled 'Trade Secret' are not very helpful,” explains Barczak. “They’re so redacted that anytime you’re reading them and you think ‘maybe they’re about to say there’s a problem,’ it’s redacted.”
SACE had intervened in the PSC case about the Vogtle expansion, and according to the group’s last brief, they suspect the utility company is suppressing the true cost of the project, manipulating analyses of viable alternatives to nuclear development and forcing the costs onto ratepayers (who will be paying a monthly surcharge for the construction for the next several years).
“It is becoming more apparent that it is not the Vogtle nuclear reactor project itself that is being "actively and prudently managed" but rather the image that such project will stay on budget and on schedule,” states the SACE brief.
The expansion of Plant Vogtle could be the first new reactor construction in the United States since 1979, when a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island changed landscape for nuclear development.
Public opinion on nuclear energy had been steadily improving over the last several years in the United States, fueled in part by a concerted public relations campaign to push nuclear as the most viable means of low–carbon energy production, the push for a “nuclear renaissance” that began in the mid–2000s, and a meltdown–free 25 years since Chernobyl.
Feelings about nuclear had been in steady decline since the 1990s, and only 17 percent of Americans “strongly favored” increasing nuclear energy capacity in 2005. By early 2010, 27 percent “strongly favored” it, and 59 percent “favored” it, according to a Gallup poll in March of last year.
It’s unclear how the disaster in Japan will affect public opinion, but it has certainly increased awareness about potential catastrophic failures at nuclear reactors.
Utility company officials have downplayed safety concerns based on direct comparisons with the catastrophe in Japan, saying that there is little chance of an earthquake affecting reactors in Georgia and no chance of a tsunami reaching them.
There have been potential issues with other natural disasters though. In October 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) raised questions about the design safety of the AP1000, the reactors planned for Vogtle, particularly whether they could withstand hurricane force winds above a Category 3, tornados and other events.
Comparing the AP1000 reactors with those at Fukushima is futile because of advancements in design. One significant difference is their emergency shutdown mechanisms. The 40 year old systems at the Japanese reactors required an alternative source of electricity to power automated shutdown processes within the reactors. Those were wiped out by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, exacerbating the situation.
The AP1000’s design includes “passive safety,” according to the Westinghouse website, which means that shutdown can occur without electricity using gravity, compressed air and other mechanisms.
Despite that advancement, there are still some concerns about the safety of the AP1000.
In 2009, there were three separate incidents involving flaws in other types of reactor containment units, including a rust hole that had penetrated the steel containment liner at Beaver Valley and a 60–foot long crack in the concrete containment at Crystal River.
Major problems were avoided because existing reactors in the US have secondary containment to prevent leaking radiation, something lacking from three of the reactors at Fukushima, and also not present in the current AP1000 design.
According to testimony from Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer at Fairewinds Associates, “The steel containment in the AP1000 design has no backup secondary concrete containment behind it to capture post accident radiation that leaks out.
Nuclear plants have been licensed under redundant safety features in order to protect public health and safety, and the containment redundancy is missing from the AP1000.”
Some experts are also concerned about the safety of existing facilities because of failures in oversight by the NRC.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not properly enforced safety regulations at existing plants; such negligence nearly led in 2002 to a catastrophic accident at the Davis–Besse plant in Ohio,” says a position paper authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The lifespan of reactor facilities is generally expected to be around 60 years. Georgia Power’s Plant Hatch, located south of Savannah, was built around the same time as reactors at Fukushima during the late 1960s. Plant Hatch was last certified in 2002 when the NRC granted it an additional 20 years of service.
“In the last decade alone, nine reactors have been shut down for at least a year in order to rectify safety problems,” said the UCS paper.
A spokesperson for the NRC said that it was still too soon to tell what changes, if any, might occur to domestic nuclear policy as a result of the problems at Fukushima Daiichi.
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