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.