A devastating blow to the much-hyped revival of atomic power has been delivered by an unlikely source -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC says the "standardized" designs on which the entire premise of returning nuclear power to center stage is based have massive holes in them, and may not be ready for approval for years to come.
Delivered by one of America's most notoriously docile agencies, the NRC's warning essentially says: that all cost estimates for new nuclear reactors -- and all licensing and construction schedules -- are completely up for grabs, and have no reliable basis in fact. Thus any comparisons between future atomic reactors and renewable technologies are moot at best. And any "hard number" basis for independent financing for future nukes may not be available for years to come, if ever.
These key points have been raised in searing testimony before state regulators by Jim Warren of the North Carolina Waste and Awareness Reduction Network and Tom Clements of the South Carolina Friends of the Earth, and by others now challenging proposed state-based financing for new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors. The NRC gave conditional "certification" to this "standardized" design in 2004, allowing design work to continue. But as recently as June 27, the NRC has issued written warnings that hundreds of key design components remain without official approval. Indeed, Westinghouse has been forced to actually withdraw numerous key designs, throwing the entire permitting process into chaos.
The catastrophic outcome of similar problems has already become tangible. After two years under construction, the first "new generation" French reactor being built in Finland is already more than two years behind schedule, and more than $2.5 billion over budget. The scenario is reminiscent of the economic disaster that hit scores of "first generation" reactors, which came in massively over budget and, in many cases, decades behind promised completion dates.
In North and South Carolina, public interest groups are demanding the revocation of some $230 million in pre-construction costs already approved by state regulators for two proposed Duke Energy reactors. In both those states, as well as in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors have been presented to regulatory commissions to be financed by ratepayers as they are being built.
This astounding pro-utility scheme forces electric consumers to pay billions of dollars for nuclear plants that may never operate, and whose costs are indeterminate. Sometimes called Construction Work in Progress, it lets utilities raise rates to pay for site clearing, project planning, and down payments on large equipment and heavy reactor components, such as pressure vessels, pumps and generators, that can involve hundreds of millions of dollars, even before the projects get final federal approval. The process in essence gives utilities an incentive to drive up construction costs as much as they can. It allows them to force ratepayers to cover legal fees incurred by the utilities to defend themselves against lawsuits by those very ratepayers. And the public is stuck with the bill for whatever is spent, even if the reactor never opens -- or if it melts down before it recoups its construction costs, as did Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit Two in 1979, which self-destructed after just three months of operation.
Even the Government's Nuclear Agency Thinks an Atomic Renaissance Is a Bad Idea | Environment | AlterNet