Will the South be forced to pay for the lessons of Fukushima?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing to approve the design of a new type of nuclear reactor planned for sites across the South without first incorporating the lessons of Fukushima -- instead sticking the region's ratepayers with any bills to correct safety problems revealed by the ongoing analysis of the Japanese disaster.

In an effort to keep that from happening, a coalition of three nuclear watchdog groups filed a formal petition with the agency last week asking for the design problems with the Westinghouse-Toshiba AP1000 reactor to be resolved prior to certification.

"The Commission will be legally negligent if it certifies the AP1000 without a thorough analysis of the critical issues we have raised," said Jim Warren of NC WARN, one of the watchdog groups behind the filing along with Friends of the Earth and the AP1000 Oversight Group. "It's a shame if a federal court must order the NRC to protect public safety, and to protect the ratepayers from design corrections attempted once construction begins, when corrections will be far costlier."

Of the 30 new reactors that have been proposed in recent years across the U.S., 14 are AP1000s -- and all of those are slated for sites across the South: Duke Energy's Lee plant near Gaffney, S.C.; Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point plant south of Miami; Georgia Power/Southern Company's Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga.; Progress Energy's Shearon Harris plant near Raleigh, N.C. and its Levy County plant in Florida; the SCANA/South Carolina Electric & Gas Summer plant near Jenkinsville, S.C.; and the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte plant in Hollywood, Ala.

The reactor projects at Georgia's Plant Vogtle and South Carolina's Summer site are considered to have the greatest chance of beginning construction soon. One reason Vogtle is likely to move ahead is because the Obama administration already approved $8.3 billion in taxpayer-financed loan guarantees for Southern Company/Georgia Power to build the reactors.

Another reason is that both Georgia and South Carolina are among the handful of states with laws on the books allowing utilities to pre-charge customers for new reactors, thus shifting the financial risk from shareholders to ratepayers. So-called "Construction Work in Progress" laws are embraced by utilities but controversial among consumer advocates because they do not have provisions for refunding ratepayers if the multi-billion-dollar reactors are never built.

Florida also has a CWIP law on the books, but last year its Public Service Commission declined to approve the massive rate hikes FP&L requested for the Turkey Point project. And in North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy -- currently in merger proceedings -- want to get the state's existing CWIP law changed to allow them to raise rates for new reactor construction without time-consuming public rate hearings, a policy that opponents have dubbed "super CWIP."

Duke Energy officials had hoped super-CWIP legislation would be introduced at the General Assembly this year, but that effort was delayed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, with CEO Jim Rogers saying it was "not the right time now."

The nuclear industry's grand experiment

The design of the AP1000 was already raising concerns among nuclear experts when the March earthquake and tsunami crippled four General Electric reactors at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan's Pacific coast, causing full meltdowns at three of the reactors, multiple fires at the fourth and widespread radioactive contamination of the surrounding area.

Before the Fukushima disaster, problems had been identified with the AP1000 shield building, which is supposed to protect the reactor from outside threats such as tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. In addition, there were questions about whether the shield building -- which also serves as a radiation barrier -- would be able to support the 8 million-pound emergency cooling water tank that's supposed to sit on top of it.

And earlier this year, a report commissioned by the AP1000 Oversight Group, which involves more than a dozen organizations, warned that the reactor's design made it particularly vulnerable to through-wall corrosion, a widespread problem at U.S. reactors; such corrosion would allow radiation to leak in the event of an accident. That report was authored by Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Associates of Burlington, Vt. and a former senior nuclear industry executive.

Gundersen is also the author of a report released last week and submitted to the NRC as part of the watchdog petition that documented seven unreviewed safety concerns for the AP1000 based on the Fukushima disaster. They include excessive heat load on the containment caused by ongoing nuclear fission even after the reactor is shut down, problems related to having multiple reactor units on one disaster-stricken site, and a failure to cool the spent fuel storage pools -- all problems that arose at Fukushima.

"Fukushima Unit 4 released enormous amounts of radiation when its spent fuel pool cooling system was shut down during the tsunami -- and the lessons learned from this disaster must be applied in the design phase of the AP1000,"  Gundersen said during a press conference last week. "This same sequence is possible on the AP1000, but the NRC and Westinghouse-Toshiba have factored a zero percent chance of such an accident occurring."

Gundersen is calling on the NRC to conduct a full technical review of the safety issues before certifying the AP1000 design. The AP1000 Oversight Group says its understanding is that NRC staff has already signed off on the design certification and submitted the certification package to the full commission on or about Oct. 21 -- but the NRC did not make the certification package available for public scrutiny until Nov. 2.

"We are disappointed the Staff did not respond to, or even analyze, most of the comments by the Oversight Group and others," the watchdog petition states.

Unless the NRC rejects the recommendations of its staff and withholds approval of the AP1000 design, the safety problems identified by the watchdogs would likely be resolved on a case-by-case basis during reactor construction. As the petition points out, this essentially means that each AP1000 reactor licensed and built "will be a pilot project, using an experimental design that has not been properly reviewed and analyzed."

And those living with these nuclear experiments in their midst are also likely to be the ones paying for them.

(To watch the Fairewinds video "Fukushima and the AP1000," click here.)