Plant Vogtle is at figurative ground zero these days for all things nuclear.
Amid the clamor and sprawl of a
$14 billion expansion, it faces unprecedented scrutiny by ratepayers, environmental groups, regulators, even other nations – all tracking the progress of the first new commercial reactors to rise from U.S. soil in decades.
“Things are so volatile right now, and both sides are a little jumpy on both ends,” said Cham Dallas, a nuclear safety consultant and the director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense.
The attention, he added, is certainly warranted.
Vogtle holds the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first “combined operating license” to build and operate a nuclear plant. It will also house the first AP1000 passive cooling reactors built in the U.S. and has been designated as the nation’s “reference site” that will set the industry standard for future projects.
As much as Southern Nuclear wants its two new reactors built without incident, it is already apparent that things aren’t perfect in Burke County.
After years of site preparation, the concrete “mud mat” on which Unit 3 will be erected turned out not to be level, prompting a license amendment request to allow the project to move forward anyway. Then federal inspectors found that rebar installed in preparation for pouring the concrete base mat was inconsistent with the NRC-approved reactor design.
Both problems are minor, company officials say. The problems are among as many as 32 issues that could require more license amendment requests in the coming two years.
All those problems don’t indicate a poorly planned project, said Dave Lochbaum, the director of nuclear safety programs for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“It’s just like building a house; you have blueprints but you might need to run a pipe in a slightly different direction,” he said. “If there were no problems at all, I’d be a little suspicious.”
The best assurance that the reactors will be safe is aggressive monitoring and quality assurance by the owners and the NRC, he said.
The structure of the new licensing system, he added, creates a more transparent process in which publicly available license amendment requests are handled as the project is being built, not after the fact, as in the old system.
“It’s a different level of activity, but a byproduct of that difference is that more information is publicly known than in the old days,” he said.
Southern Company President Tom Fanning, in a recent conference call to discuss company earnings, described the rebar issue as the type of thing to be expected with an enormous and complex project that hasn’t been attempted in this country in three decades.
“What we’re trying to do is get people used to the idea that as we proceed through this long-term, expensive project, you will hear about lots of things,” he said. “This one we highlighted this quarter is just another one of what we believe will be many.”
Another issue that has focused attention on Vogtle is the fallout from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, which spawned a series of “lessons learned” that the NRC plans to gradually include in U.S. nuclear safety and licensing programs.
NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko was the lone dissenting vote when the panel voted 4-1 in February to license the Vogtle project. He also opposed the next license, issued in March for two reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina.
Both licenses, he contended, were issued prematurely and should have included all of the Fukushima-related safety enhancements.
“Without a binding requirement in the license, we know from past experience that licensees may be relieved from compliance based on cost considerations or delay compliance for extended periods of time,” Jaczko said in his dissenting opinion. “We have seen this time and again, most notably with fire protection, and should not allow that to happen here.”
Industry experts including Dallas, a professor at the University of Georgia, believe the dissension was aimed at making a statement.
“The 4-1 vote speaks pretty loudly,” Dallas said. “These are individuals well-versed in the nuclear field. The chairman sees his role as a check and balance in system. I do not see a problem.”
Dallas has studied the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl for decades and has addressed the United Nations and other groups to share lessons learned from that incident.
“Why did Chernobyl happen? They did not have rebar or a concrete containment dome over their reactors. They did everything wrong,” he said. “Fukushima has concrete containment and quality rebar in the containment vessel, which is why they had almost a complete meltdown, but only a tiny fraction of what went into the air at Chernobyl went out of Fukushima.”
Even with concrete and rebar, Fukushima was a victim of bad planning and poor risk communication.
“They planned for a 7.5 quake and got a 9.0, and they planned for a 25-foot wave and got 30 feet,” Dallas said.
Today’s new generation of nuclear plants will benefit from lessons of past accidents, said Dallas, who has made four trips to Japan as a consultant for the Japan Medical Association.
The U.S. is in the enviable situation that everyone can publicly dissect every facet of nuclear construction and safety against the backdrop of a government regulatory arm that has already demonstrated at Vogtle that it will identify problems or issues as they are found.
“More than likely there will be a little perturbation here because of the close oversight and knee-jerk reactions to anything that comes out during the Vogtle construction,” Dallas said. “There are certainly things that might slow the project down a little bit and drive the prices up, but overall I think it will be a success. Then you will see other reactors come online in other parts of the country.”