NRC wavering on AP1000 decision under pressure by FOE

On May 10, 2011, the Friends of the Earth, a group that has professionally opposed nuclear energy since the late 1960s, issued a press release that challenged the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s refusal to extend the public comment period for the AP1000. Here is a quote from the press release describing how the group organized its membership to apply focused pressure to interfere with the legal responsibility of the NRC to perform an adequate technical review and follow that review by granting design certification for nuclear electricity production plants that meet stringent safety requirements.

The 75-day formal comment period on the AP1000 “rulemaking,” which began with the publication of an announcement in the Federal Register on February 24, closes today. Included in the record are more than 14,000 comments submitted throughout the public comment period by Friends of the Earth activists, asking that the comment period be extended. This number of comments appears to be a record number submitted in an NRC rulemaking procedure. Yet, today the NRC rejected the call to extend the comment period, despite the thousands of public requests.

In my view, the FOE made a key tactical mistake by bragging about its successful effort to orchestrate an email campaign. Any email that comes from members of a dedicated pressure group should not be viewed as “public” comments indicating a broad based concern. In the US system, groups have a right to organize to express their opinions, but they do not have a right to impose their view on the majority.

If 14,000 individual members of the public who had already invested the time to become conversant with the technical issues associated with designing and licensing a nuclear power plant had determined that they had strong enough concerns about the specifics of a design to submit a critical comment, that might be a situation worth a serious review. However, if 14,000 form letter emails are generated by a group of people who have been dedicated to fighting nuclear energy for more than 40 years that means something entirely different.

The technical criticisms of the design from the FOE rests on shaky ground. They come from mainly from two former nuclear engineers, one of whom made a mid-life career change to become professionally engaged in opposing nuclear energy development. Arnie Gundersen, who runs a consultancy called Fairewinds Associates along with his wife, a trained paralegal, has produced some statements that describe a 1.75 inch thick steel structure as inadequate and a large, sub-divided tank that meets American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) code for seismic strength as a single point of failure in the case of a station blackout event.

That is the personal opinion of a single man who has not been engaged in making calculations that are verified by peers and reviewed by regulators since at least 1990, when he left a nuclear services company under a cloud that resulted in him being sued for defamation. Perhaps FOE recognized that an unverified calculation does not carry much weight in a regulatory proceeding; according to their press release, Gundersen did not perform his calculation by himself.

Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen and the staff of Fairewinds Associates analyzed the design of the AP1000 reactor and found many aspects lacking, as cataloged in the comments formally submitted to the NRC by Friends of the Earth. The comments state that claims made about the safety of the reactor’s containment structure “are not based upon sound scientific analysis and engineering review, but appear instead to be based upon the mythical dreaming of an aggressive industry and its captive regulator.”

FOE’s press release authors and approvers also decided that Arnie’s opinion might carry more weight if it was backed up by someone other than the staff at Fairewinds (perhaps Maggie, Arnie’s wife, has obtained engineering training along with her paralegal training). They found another person with an impressive sounding title and resume who has some criticisms of her own.

The submission goes on to highlight earlier comments by a former Westinghouse reactor design employee, Dr. Susan Sterrett, who raised numerous, as of yet unanswered, questions about the methodology employed by both Westinghouse and the NRC in relation to the AP1000 design. Dr. Sterrett alleges that Westinghouse improperly based the AP1000 design on aspects of the AP600 design and that the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactors Safeguards (ACRS) did not thoroughly review this choice by Westinghouse.

The problems with Dr. Sterrett’s qualifications to technically challenge Westinghouse’s design analysis, however, are that her PhD is in philosophy, her publications discuss the philosophy of science, and she has not been involved in any design work at Westinghouse for at least a dozen years. She has no basis for her claim that Westinghouse is merely repurposing old calculations from a different licensed design. Her challenges are also not “unanswered.” She received a politely worded response to her 2005 challenge of the certification of an earlier iteration of the AP1000 design on those very same grounds. (You can find the document at the NRC’s web site using a web based ADAMS search for document number ML051880279.)

When I first read the FOE press release, I did not think too much about it since the public comment period for the AP1000 had ended, and the process for awarding the revised design certification rule was scheduled to be completed by sometime in the late summer or early fall. Then Chairman Jaczko decided to exercise his prerogative as the NRC’s primary spokesman to issue a press release indicating that unresolved technical issues remained in the design certification document. That action worried me.

On Thursday, June 2, 2011, CNBC published a report that caused me even greater concern. According to that report, the NRC is seriously considering reopening the public comment period for the AP1000. Also according to that report, the previous public comment period resulted in “more than 13,000” comments. That statement that indicates to me that nearly all of the comments received were the ones orchestrated by the FOE.

An NRC decision to reopen the public comment period would have a chilling effect on nuclear development work in the United States because it would add even more uncertainty to an already lengthy and unpredictable process. It could result in massive layoffs at the plant Vogtle site in eastern Georgia, where there are already several thousand people preparing for actual plant construction. Their work is progressing on schedule now, but if the design certification is delayed by several months, they will reach a stage where there is nothing left to do. The project is not allowed to move beyond a certain point without a construction and operating license.

Georgia residents began paying for the costs of the Vogtle units in their electric bills several years ago because the Georgia public utility commission agreed that it was the best alternative to meet a growing need for electrical power. Their investment is being put at risk. The AP1000 design has successfully completed many years of detailed engineering and review. It would be a tragedy for my country and my grandchildren’s future if the focused actions of a few professional activists resulted in derailing the construction of a safe, emission free and reliable electric power resource that is not dependent on rapidly depleting and polluting resources like natural gas or coal.

Public engagement is a necessary part of a democratic process, but if the FOE can add significant delay and cost to a nuclear project, what is to stop competitors from using that same technique to prevent nuclear energy from successfully capturing market share? Determining how our energy needs will be met is not just an academic exercise where all opinions have equal weight; it is a highly technical process involving the expenditure of many billions of dollars. It is also a competitive business where established suppliers are motivated by understandable business objectives to hamper the development of effective energy sources that could push them out of portions of “their” market and slow their revenues.

About Rod Adams

41 Responses to “NRC wavering on AP1000 decision under pressure by FOE”

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  1. George Carty says:

    Given how many Zambians starved to death in 2002 because Friends of the Earth pressured that country’s leaders to refuse aid shipments containing GM grain, why hasn’t Friends of the Earth been outlawed as a terrorist organization?

    “Childbearing should be a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license… All potential parents should be required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.” – David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth

    • Chuck P. says:

      “Friends of the Earth” really ought to rename themselves “Enemies of Humanity.” It seems to me that’s where their focus really lies.

  2. SteveK9 says:

    Well, it may be a drop in the bucket but I sent my own comment to the NRC public affairs office in Atlanta, GA. Wasn’t clear on the NRC website where one should comment on something like this.

  3. SteveK9 says:

    Sometimes I wonder if at this rate there will be half a dozen completed AP1000’s around the world before the NRC finishes approving it.

  4. AndyB says:

    I am an avid follower (and fan) of your blog and podcast, nuclear advocate, AND (soon-to-be) PhD in Philosophy (who is also hoping to transition to a nuke related career – oh, the things I would tell my younger self). I have read some of what Prof. Sterrett has to say on this issue, and in particular her concern with “regulatory capture” (when industry is effectively “in bed” with regulators). This seems to be a significant underlying issue in her thinking, and I think it drives most of what she has to say (that is, she suspects regulatory capture, so she searches for evidence). For my part (and I know yours) I just don’t see it. WHERE ARE ALL THE NEW NUKE PLANTS? If there is regulatory capture going on, one would expect the industry to make easy, decisive progress. Instead, there has been regulatory capture by the *opponents* of nuclear – Big Fossil and renewables (and I’m with you on thinking the first may have a hand in the second). Fossils have been in bed with Mining and Minerals for years, and there is good evidence they’ve been thumbing the scales against nuclear as well.
    At any rate, you might also take heart in knowing that I’ve seen considerably more support for nuclear in the non-scientific academic community than I expected (especially among philosophers). We are smarter and more broadly educated than most people think.


  5. Brian Mays says:

    The technical criticisms of the design from the FOE rests on shaky ground. … meets American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) code for seismic strength as a single point of failure in the case of a station blackout event.

    Did you intend that pun?

  6. Brian Mays says:

    Sterrett is an academic in an unrelated field, who enjoys moonlighting as a crackpot.

    The press release is disingenuous in that it makes it appear that Sterrett used to be employed by Westinghouse; however, this is simply not the case. Her only experience with the AP designs is working “a few years” as a consultant to Westinghouse on work related to the AP600 design. Given that her only engineering degree is at the bachelor’s level and that she left the engineering profession only a year or two later (13 years ago), it is likely that she was a low-level employee of one of the many small, undistinguished engineering companies out there that do highly specialized consulting work.

    She has absolutely no experience working on the AP1000, and as she has told the NRC, all of her knowledge of this design has come from reading “publicly available documents.” It is typical of cranks to think that, without training or experience, they know more than the experts, and they tend to get very upset when their (often nutty) complaints, claims, or allegations are dismissed without being taken seriously, as they often are.

    That appears to be the case here. FOE is doing its best to play this up for more that it is worth by avoiding the specifics of her academic credentials and current job and overemphasizing her minor connections to Westinghouse.

    • Susan G Sterrett says:

      This is Susan G. Sterrett. The information you relayed is incorrect.

      I was an employee of Westinghouse Nuclear for over seven years before entering graduate school in the mid-eighties. At that time I worked on standard plants (all were PWRs that got built). I did design calculations for many systems, in many disciplinary areas, and wrote software simulating system behavior and containment temps and pressures for training simulators.

      It was not uncommon in the mid-nineties for Westinghouse Nuclear to hire ex-employees to do consulting work, which is how I came to do design work on the AP600 while in the dissertation stage.

      In all, I think I worked for Westinghouse Nuclear for about 11 years.

      • Brian Mays says:

        I stand corrected, and I humbly apologize for any inaccuracies.

        Much of what I wrote was pure speculation, and it was intended as such, but it was based on the information that you provided to the ACRS to bolster the arguments of your intervention, which (somehow) did not mention that you were at one time a Westinghouse employee. In any case, you claimed to have worked for only “a few years” on issues related to the AP600 design and never on the AP1000 design.

        Don’t you have an unusual hobby for someone who is now a professor of philosophy?

        … which is how I came to do design work on the AP600 while in the dissertation stage.

        The dissertation stage of getting your PhD in philosophy?! I realize that the nuclear industry relies on “Defense in Depth,” but that’s an entirely different kind of deep thinking altogether, don’t you think?

      • Rod Adams says:

        Susan – thank you for visiting and joining into the conversation. I appreciate your professional experience. Like Brian, however, I have to wonder what made you turn that knowledge base into a hobby of opposing nuclear technology? My own hands on nuclear experience largely dates to the 1980s as well – the last time I actually operated a reactor was in late 1990 before I left my last submarine assignment. However, I have spent the last 22 years fighting FOR increased use of fission because I believe it is so much better than any alternative on a number of measures of effectiveness.

        What is it about nuclear fission that makes you think its use should be resisted?

      • Joel Riddle says:

        Rod, if she answers these questions, I would be very interested in the answer. They might make a good posting.

      • Joel Riddle says:

        And here is Susan’s blog, if anyone is interested.

        From a glance, it appears that the IBM Watson Jeopardy matches were a major topic, until about March 11th.

  7. David says:

    The FAA is worse still! New plan designs show complicity between the agency and manufactures / importers because there are STILL accidents! For Shame! The FAA should not have allowed a single new design until the manufacturers could 100% insure that NO ONE WILL DIE in their death traps. We need at least a 15 year intensive examination of every new design changes before one micro chip is changed.

    • DV82XL says:

      Indeed, that’s just about the size of it.

      • George Carty says:

        What would have happened to the aviation industry, if a terrorist organization made up of relatives of air crash victims had pursued bloody revenge against airliner manufacturers?

        (Starting with a truck bomb attack on McDonnell Douglas to avenge the victims of Turkish Airlines Flight 981…)

  8. Jeff S says:

    I have a few questions. . . FOE wants to re-open the Public Comment Period, but on what grounds? They’ve already submitted their comments. They’ve had plenty of time to submit their comments.

    Now, it’s time for the NRC to review the comments and make a ruling. What POSSIBLE GOOD will it do (other than causing delay, which, it would seem, is most probably the goal) to further extend the public comment period? Have they given any reasons at all why further comments can be expected to improve the review process? Why the original comment period was insufficient?

    • David says:

      Precisely. What more can they say than to us they have said? To us who to nuclear from climate have fled? Please now give us the careful reasoning in support or refutation of their exhastive reciteration.

  9. Brian Mays says:

    FOE wants to re-open the Public Comment Period, but on what grounds? They’ve already submitted their comments. They’ve had plenty of time to submit their comments.

    How unsporting of you! Haven’t you ever heard of a “Mulligan”?

  10. Jason Kobos says:

    “Included in the record are more than 14,000 comments submitted throughout the public comment period by Friends of the Earth activists, asking that the comment period be extended.”

    My interpretation of this sentences as written, by and organization who is very careful about what they write.

    75 days was not enough to send 20,000 comments saying that 75 days was not enough time to send 20,000 comments.

    • Jeff S says:

      @Jason Kobos: Excellent point – that’s sort of how I parsed that sentence too. . .

      “You sent comments saying you need more time to send comments?!?”

  11. Bill Rodgers says:

    Reading through Gundersen’s report was a little on the boring side. I kept waiting for the big reveal moment where Gundersen proves his review of public information available on the AP1000 is much better then the original proprietary design info.

    All I just saw a litany of compliants about primary containment issues after 40 years of operation which other plants are now resolving. In other words Gundersen is hamstringing a new design with problems that may or may not happen 40 years in the future. So I figured I was just going to have to plow through the 20+ pages until I came across the following quote:

    “Immediately after Fairewinds provided these photos and detailed analysis of the AP1000 design
    to the ACRS and without detailed analysis of any kind, either the NRC staff or members of the
    ACRS itself leaked their opinion to pro-nuclear bloggers stating that Fairewinds analysis was
    incorrect. While Fairewinds has never had the privilege of a detailed NRC response, the NRC
    used its typical backchannel communications with its friends in the nuclear industry in an
    attempt to discredit the veracity of the Fairewinds report.”

    So who is the mysterious pro-nuclear blogger that received information directly from the NRC? Gundersen makes all now cloak and dagger type stuff by throwing this comment in his report.

    An internal source at the NRC leaks info in an attempt to discredit a known anti-nuclear group. Now we have the makings of an interesting story.

    The burning question is if the pro-nulcear blogger will step foward and name names? Or will he or she clam up and take the 5th.

    More seriously though, Gundersen’s claim should be driven to ground either to ensure the public comment and review process is maintained as intended if true or to kill his statement and highlight the lengths he and his group will go to attempt to stop the AP1000 from being certified.

  12. ddpalmer says:

    Rod, thanks for the link to the article about Gunderson and his trip for FOE to speak against a nuclear plant in the Czech Republic.

    I found this quote quite interesting.

    “…and the country derives much of its energy from coal-burning generators located in Bohemia. “If they bring the new plan online, they will end up laying off 100,000 coal miners,” Mr. Gundersen said, “and will have to deal with massive unemployment.””

    So are Gunderson and the FOE in favor of coal mining and burning coal for electricity? Or more likely are they hypocrites who would use any argument against nuclear power?

    • Brian Mays says:

      So are Gunderson and the FOE in favor of coal mining and burning coal for electricity?

      It’s not just Gunderson and the FOE, it’s the whole nutty enviro-left. For example, take this recent article on “ThinkProgress” that touts that new nuclear costs as much as solar power today. Notice what is compared in the first graphic?

      • ANDREW GAUDIN says:

        Yeah, Coal and Gas, not PV or Solar Thermal, not Hydro or any of the other renewables that are supposed to be the clean alternatives to nuclear on the CO2-free side of the balance sheet.

        They cite a California study.

        California banned new nuclear years ago, now they’re importing electricity, including from huge coal plants in Nevada and New Mexico, and (lol) nuclear energy from Palo Verde. I bet California’s cost of generation studies don’t account for the economic development loss to other states of doing so, nor do they take into account the economic multiplier of capital-intensive generation versus fuel-intensive generation on their state’s tax base and employment.

  13. Brian Mays says:

    “If they bring the new plan online, they will end up laying off 100,000 coal miners,” Mr. Gundersen said, “and will have to deal with massive unemployment.”

    Which is, of course, a dirty lie. With Germany returning to it’s plan to shut down all of its nuclear plants in the next dozen years, the market for coal in central Europe will be strong.

    The FOE is a collective of sociopaths, who will say or do anything if it will enrich their coffers and advance their ideology. Nobody ever said that their ideology had to be logically consistent.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Brian – alternatively, the FOE is simply a collection of greedy fossil fuel oriented capitalists who have figured out that they can make a lot of money by lying about their reasons for fighting nuclear energy development.

      Have you never read a good mystery novel or engaged in strategic gamesmanship?

      • Brian Mays says:

        Except that they are not.

        Solving a “good mystery” involves more that just tossing around baseless accusations.

        David Brower, the founder of FOE, has already been quoted above. He is noted for referring to Environmentalism as a religion (perhaps one of the first people to do so and a rare case of an environmentalist admitting this), as has been documented by his son, the author Kenneth Brower, in some of his writing.

      • Rod Adams says:

        Brian – you are still just quoting what they say, not what they do. Did Brower live like a priest, or a minister or did he live a jet setting lifestyle like any other good capitalist?

      • Brian Mays says:

        Rod – But Brower wasn’t a priest or a minister; he was an Archdruid. He also was not very good with money, and financial problems under his watch resulted in him being forced out of both the Sierra Club and the FOE.

        • Rod Adams says:

          He might not have been good with organizational money, but there are many examples of rich capitalists who have that problem. My question remains – did Brower walk the walk or did he live large with frequent international trips, expensive meals and far better than average accommodations? My guess, based on the lifestyles of some of the “environmental” leaders that I know, is that he profited immensely from his efforts.

          (One non-profit environmental group director that I knew drove a hybrid to work. He lived in a huge house and drove a Corvette when he was chasing skirts. He was also known to fly to CA for some medicinal herbs on a not infrequent basis.)

  14. donb says:

    I propose that FOE provide the funding for the extended public comment period, and also cover any costs associated with constuction delays. If any significant design defects are discovered during the extended review, this money would then be refunded, with interest, to FOE.

  15. Jerry says:

    Today they block the certification process, tomorrow they use the delayed certification as an argument against nuclear power. In the end, it all leads back to their doorstep.
    Just like they prevented reprocessing, then blocked Yucca mountain (see Harry Reid’s campaign commercial combining pictures of radioactive transports cruising on the Las Vegas strip with an oil contaminated pelican in the Gulf of Mexico, then saying “no to Yucca”), so now they can use the litany of “we don’t know what to do with the spent fuel” as another agrument.

    • Wayne SW says:

      They are duplicitous SOBs in other ways as well. By blocking a central repository, they argue that is is “better” to store used fuel at the plant sites. Then they turn around and say that the plants are unsafe because of all the used fuel stored there, and point to events like Fukushima and overheated fuel storage pools as “proof” of their assertion. So on the one hand they argue for on-site storage and against Yucca Mountain, then they use the on-site storage as a club to hammer the industry on how “unsafe” the plants are because of all the used fuel lying around there, never mentioning that it is their fault the stuff is still there and not buried somewhere.

      • Rod Adams says:

        Wayne – you have to understand that the antinuclear industry developed its strategy to use “the waste issue” to constipate nuclear energy development in about 1974 under the leadership of Ralph Nader of the Critical Mass Energy Project. The whole idea is to frustrate supporters, add cost and add uncertainty.

        So far, the strategy is working because the industry has failed to tell its side of the story and to demand the right to take care of its own property. Used nuclear fuel is not a waste; it is a resource. The story from the antinuclear industry is that the resource part of the waste is a terrible risk of “proliferation”, but the reality is that the isotope mix in used nuclear fuel is essentially impossible to use in a weapon.

        When nuclear advocates understand the real motives of the opposition (maintaining fossil fuel sales), maybe we will have a chance at selling our story to enough fence sitters to make the inevitable opposition irrelevant.

  16. Mike Himes says:

    The AP1000 is but one of several designs and before it has any hope of certification it will be made obsolete by newer reactors. It would appear that Chairman Jaczko use of sandbags to delay the construction of new nuclear is effective. However, there is the rest of the world and lots of water to fuel and cool and otherwise render sandbags ineffective.

  17. Ioannes says:

    “In the US system, groups have a right to organize to express their opinions, but they do not have a right to impose their view on the majority.”

    The majority doesn’t get to dictate its wishes on the individual, abrogating the individual’s rights away. The difference between democracy – two wolves and one sheep voting on what’s for dinner – and socialism is small. That’s why we were founded as a Constitutional Republic, NOT as a democracy. Demkrats forget that.

    Good for Friends of Earth. They manipulated Obama’s appointee and you voted for Obama.

    • Chuck P. says:

      Remind me again, how many new nuclear plants began construction under Bush (either one)?

    • Joel Riddle says:

      Ioannes going back to partisan politics. I am shocked.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Ioannes – this is not a partisan blog. I recognize the role that politics plays in energy, but it has little or nothing to do with left-right or Democrat-Republican. The establishment does not like nuclear energy because it is disruptive of the current world order.

      Yes, I voted for our current President. I agree with some of the things he does and says and disagree with some. My right as a participant in a representative democracy is to vote on occasion and to comment or take actions that are within legal limits anytime I want.

      I happen to think that socialism is okay – many fine places to live and work are run by socialists. There is nothing wrong with putting people above “capital”.

      • George Carty says:

        @Rod Adams

        I don’t think Ioannes is putting capital before people. From what I understand of his politics, he’s a Catholic reactionary, not a Randian ultra-capitalist.