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Obama's $8 Billion Nuclear Boost Dogged by Safety Concerns

AP1000 May Be Too Weak for Extreme Weather, Government Watchdogs Fear

By Stacy Feldman

Feb 17, 2010

A new nuclear reactor design being backed by the United States may not be durable enough to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes or a direct airplane hit, American regulators have said, raising security concerns as the country attempts an atomic revival.

President Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees this week for two new reactors planned at an existing Southern Company nuclear site some 170 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia.

The reactors would use the AP1000 third-generation technology designed by Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse, one of the world's largest makers of nuclear turbines.

The company says the AP1000 is the "safest" nuclear power plant on the market. A full one-half of 440 reactors on the books worldwide are based on it, according to its figures. In America, around 12 AP1000s are planned.

But the design has yet to get safety clearance in the U.S., and it is not generating electricity anywhere in the world.

The main design flaw is in the "shield building," the steel dome that covers the reactor, supposedly protecting it from external shocks. Westinghouse wants to reinforce the cover with a "sandwich" of two steel plates filled with concrete, instead of the conventional method of reinforced concrete strengthened with steel bars.

Last October, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), overseer of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, informed Westinghouse that the AP1000's shield building has not demonstrated an ability to withstand extreme weather and other forces, and it ordered more tests.

"We've been talking to Westinghouse regularly about the shield building since October 2008, and we’ve consistently laid out our questions to the company," Michael Johnson, director of the NRC's Office of New Reactors said in a .

"This is a situation where fundamental engineering standards will have to be met before we can begin determining whether the shield building meets the agency's requirements," he said.

The company, which is on its seventeenth revision, has yet to formally submit an improvement of the shield building, though a closed-door meeting between the NRC and Westinghouse is expected soon.

The firm is also said to be collaborating with Purdue University to study earthquake resistance.

When questioned about safety concerns this week, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters that the AP1000 is "being built in a way" that is "going to be much safer."

But nuclear opponents are not convinced. "There is no way that [Secretary Chu] or anyone else can say this design is safe when it's not even licensed and the review is on hold," said Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for environmental group Friends of the Earth.

For Clements, the decision to greenlight billions for the plants before winning safety approval reeks of "politics and public relations."

"This whole [loan guarantees] program is being run in secrecy," Clements told SolveClimate. "We don't know how they're making they're decisions. They won't release any information. It underscores the fact that the Obama administration’s directives about openness and transparency are just not being carried out."

Environmental group Greenpeace called the nuclear handout "another corporate bailout" and a "dirty and dangerous distraction" that gives "new meaning to the phrase 'toxic asset.'"

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a staunch supporter of nuclear power who has repeatedly called for 100 new facilities, the announcement was a "welcome change from an energy policy that was looking like a national windmill policy."

8 billion

8 billion for 1.1 gigawatt reactors? A 1 gigawatt coal reactor costs about 1 billion, that is crazy expensive.
Also, all please keep in mind that there are currently roughly 150 nuclear plants (with 103 of them *active*) in our country, and they have been here for over 30 years! In those thirty-plus years, how many have had an accident? Hmmm... ONE. The only accident we've seen was Three-Mile Island in the '70s, and even that wasn't a meltdown. We are very good about keeping the plants safe, and the NRC deserves applause.

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