I realize that my topic selection during the past couple of days might have given the mistaken impression that NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko’s action to derail the Yucca Mountain project is the main reason that I think that the man is a hazard to the prosperity of my grandchildren.
People who have been reading Atomic Insights for a long time or those with easy access to search engines will realize, however, that I have never been in favor of wasting time and resources to build an underground repository or specialized transportation systems to a remote location in the Nevada desert. I am far more interested in eventually making full use of the resources that we should continue carefully setting aside in used fuel pools and dry storage containers.
Jaczko is also abusing his position in numerous other ways in what I see as an important part of an orchestrated effort to derail nuclear energy development in the United States and in as many places around the world as possible. He keeps claiming that he is passionately interested in “nuclear safety” but based on his actions, I suspect that his personal view is that the only way to achieve that goal is to prevent humans from taking any advantage of the incredible capabilities offered by nuclear energy.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am beginning to believe that all of the supportive words that President Obama has said about nuclear energy are mere distractions to keep atomic advocates from recognizing the real plan of slow rolling the technology into a high cost oblivion. (He can prove me wrong by demoting Jaczko from his position as Chairman.)
In addition to Yucca Mountain fiasco, the outrageous 50 mile evacuation order for Americans in Japan, the unlawful assumption of emergency powers on the basis of an accident that did not affect any NRC license holders and the alignment with antinuclear activists with regard to very minor tritium emissions at sites like Vermont Yankee, Chairman Jaczko is also taking aim at the process of awarding licenses for new nuclear plant construction. By inserting as much delay as possible, he might be able to derail any hope of a recovery in the potentially enormous nuclear plant manufacturing and construction business in the United States. In an era where the number of good jobs is far below the need for good jobs, that action would be a serious blow to our hopes of a sustainable economic recovery.
Though the $8.3 Billion dollar loan guarantee to Southern Company and its partners was announced with great fanfare and a well-chosen backdrop more than 16 months ago, that guarantee has not yet been awarded. No money has been made available to Southern Company or its Georgia Power subsidiary based on that federal promise of support.
The loan guarantee and the associated loan is contingent upon the granting of a combined construction and operating license (what the nuclear industry calls a COL) by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Up until this spring, it appeared likely – to most observers – that the COL for the Vogtle project would be awarded in the late summer or early fall of 2011. The 75-day public comment period ended and no real show stoppers had emerged.
Then, in a move that reminds me of Lucy, Charlie Brown, and footballs, Chairman Jaczko issued a press release that seemed to snatch away hope of an timely license approval. According to the Chairman, the review of Westinghouse’s license application had resulted in uncovering “technical issues”. I have been working for the past three weeks to understand exactly what that phrase meant. As near as I can tell, there are a couple of very minor objections being discussed.
A single dissenting reviewer on the NRC staff, Dr. John Ma, objected in writing to the test program and claimed that results showed that the shield building for the AP1000 was brittle and could shatter “like a glass cup” in an earthquake or if struck by a commercial aircraft. After that objection was raised, Purdue University announced that they had conducted some very demanding physical tests on samples of the same type of concrete structures that Westinghouse plans to use. According to the results of those tests, the structures are strong enough and flexible enough to exceed all requirements.
A second objection has apparently been suggested by a philosophy professor named Dr. Susan Sterrett. Before going back to school to obtain her PhD in philosophy, Ms. Susan Sterrett worked for Westinghouse in the 1980s. She was a math and engineering major as an undergrad, so her role was to perform calculations and build mathematical models. According to Dr. Sterrett, Westinghouse erred when modeling the post accident conditions that might arise inside the steel containment structure. She thinks that the modelers should have included the contribution to stress that would be added by solar energy induced temperature differentials on the exterior of the shield building. In a modeled scenario where the containment structure is being filled with high pressure steam from a coolant system rupture, most reasonable engineers would agree that the contribution to stress from the sun heating the exterior of the building would be small enough to be ignored.
As it turns out, when generous assumptions for the worst possible case solar irradiation on the shield building are included in the model, the projected maximum pressure inside the containment dome increases from about 58.9 psi to 59.3 psi – still below the maximum allowable pressure of the building. Westinghouse is currently “polishing the cannonball” on its models and calculations in preparation for a meeting scheduled to be held this coming week with the NRC.
Greg Jaczko has announced to the world that unless Westinghouse’s recalculations meet his personally set standards of satisfaction, he might reopen the application to public comment, an action that would inevitably add several months of delay to the project. That might not seem like much, but there are already a few thousand people employed at the site, at the suppliers, and in the engineering offices that are working to a schedule. Every month of artificially imposed delay adds many millions of dollars to the cost with no improvement in eventual revenue and no improvement in safety. Adding uncertainty on top of that additional cost – what if Westinghouse is never able to satisfy the Chairman – could cause decision makers to rethink their investment choices.
It would not be unreasonable, though it would be a signifiant tragedy to all of the employees and to the people of the great state of Georgia (my late father’s native state), if the Southern Company Board of Directors viewed a reopening of the public comment period as an indication that it is time to avoid future losses and close down the project. The people in Georgia have been burned before – the first two units of the Vogtle power station were initially projected to cost $660 million and ended up costing $8 billion.
The Georgia Public Service Commission, which is fiscally responsible to the ratepayers for the costs that it allows monopoly utility companies that it regulates to incur, is already worried. The PSC hired a consultant (with Georgia Power’s money) to help them figure out what a delay could mean to the rate payers who are already paying a small amount every month for their share of the construction work in progress. That consultant, William Jacobs, a Marietta nuclear engineer, filed a report on Thursday, June 9, 2011 that includes some cautionary statements.
“Possible schedule delay … would impact the financing cost of the project,” Jacobs said in a report filed late Thursday with the PSC.
Jacobs said Georgia Power hasn’t accounted for so-called change orders that could “significantly impact the direct construction costs of the project.” He listed possible cost impacts in his testimony, although that information was redacted.
Based on a number of emailed exchanges over the past two years with the Office of Public Affairs at the NRC, I am fairly certain that Chairman Jaczko would tell the ratepayers of Georgia that he is not concerned about the cost of their project, the cost of their current electricity or the time that it might take to finally obtain a license to continue construction.
My educated guess is that Chairman Jaczko would piously announce that his only concern is nuclear safety and that he will not allow the project license to be approved until Westinghouse has proven that its design is safe – to his personal satisfaction. Chairman Jaczko has demonstrated that he is not bound by any rules, laws, or collegial opinions of his fellow commissioners, even in the case of a formal vote that goes against his personal desires and agendas.
If you want to hear about the AP1000 from the point of view of another (former) NRC regulator, you can listen to my May 28, 2011 interview of Jeff Merrifield, currently a Senior VP of the Shaw Group, on The Atomic Show Podcast.