Nuclear Reactors of Unproven Design Planned for California’s Central Valley


FRESNO, California, January 6, 2010 (ENS) – At least one nuclear reactor is being planned for California’s agricultural Central Valley but it is already running into grassroots opposition and technical problems.

Areva, a French nuclear engineering company, and the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group announced December 29, 2009 that they have signed a Letter of Intent to formalize cooperation in the development of one or two EPR nuclear reactors.

The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group is a group of investors that wishes to acquire the EPR generation 3+ technology “to provide an environmentally responsible source of electricity to further develop the agricultural industry within Central Valley,” Areva said in its announcement of the arrangement.

To date, no EPR reactors are operating anywhere in the world, although several are in the construction or planning stages.

The two companies will work together on the initial development and permitting process. In 2010, Areva and the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group will begin a series of studies to identify the most feasible site for a new nuclear power plant in California.

Certification of the EPR™ reactor is currently underway in the United States and six power companies – Constellation, PPL, AmerenUE, Amarillo Power, AEHI and Duke Energy – have already chosen the EPR™ for a total of eight potential reactor construction projects.

EPR, a trademark of the Areva Group, stands for European Pressurized Reactor, or alternatively, Evolutionary Power Reactor. The third generation pressurized water reactor was designed and developed by Areva, Electricite de France in France, and Siemens AG in Germany.

In 2009, two EPR units were under construction, one each in Finland and France, and both are facing costly construction delays. Nuclear regulators in both countries have expressed doubts about their safety. The one in Finland, Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Eurajoki, is farthest advanced and is due to be commissioned in 2011.

Areva is proposing to build an EPR in the UK, but Britain’s main security regulator, the Nuclear Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive, said in a November 2009 report that it could not immediately recommend plans for the new reactor because of wide-ranging concerns about its safety, but said the assessment will not be completed until 2011.

Kevin Allars, director for the regulator’s New Nuclear Build Generic Design Assessment, GDA, said, “We continue to believe that the UK EPR could be suitable for construction on licensed sites in the UK. However, we have identified a significant number of issues with the safety features of the design that would first have to be progressed. If these are not progressed satisfactorily then we would not issue a ‘Design Acceptance Confirmation.”

In its GDA report, the regulatory agency requests:

  • More evidence that design codes and standards “conform to the design standards we would expect to be applied to new nuclear construction.”
  • More evidence to support the proposed use of bonded prestressing tendons in the containment structure, “a novel approach in the UK for nuclear applications.” Pre-tensioned concrete is cast around already tensioned tendons of high tensile steel cable or rods. “We have been unable as yet to gain sufficient confidence in the likely quality of the construction, or the capability of the through-life monitoring and testing regimes, for bonded prestressing tendons,” the GDA report states.
  • Because of security considerations, the regulatory agency has not been able to check that the reactor design has adequate resistance to aircraft impact. These arrangements are now in place and aircraft impact will be addressed in the next GDA report.
  • The agency notes concerns about the “complexity of the architecture and on the very high reliabilities that EDF and AREVA were claiming” and “the integrity of hazard barriers through implementation of door control measures.” In response, AREVA has committed to deliver changes to the design.
  • Areva claims that the likelihood of gross failure of some components is so low that it can be discounted. The regulatory agency has asked for a list of these components and demonstrations of “integrity” for these components.

Back in the United States, EPR reactors have been proposed for Maryland (Calvert Cliffs-3), New York (Nine Mile Point-3), Pennsylvania (Bell Bend) and Missouri (Callaway-2). The Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor is reportedly on the Department of Energy’s shortlist to receive funding under its $18.5 billion loan guarantee program.

Twenty-two environmental groups in regions affected by the proposed EPR reactors are urging Energy Secretary Steven Chu to suspend the loan guarantee process for EPR reactor designs.

In a letter dated December 22, the groups cited an unprecedented November 2, 2009 joint statement from nuclear regulators in France, Finland and the UK that identifies “a significant and fundamental nuclear safety problem with the EPR’s instrumentation and control system.” The problem has not yet been corrected and may lead to the design being unable to meet licensing requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The groups pointed to the soaring cost estimates for construction of EPR reactors, noting that PPL has posted an estimate of $13-15 billion for a single reactor at Bell Bend, Pennsylvania, which works out to about $8,000-$9,000 per kilowatt, at least twice the cost of potential competing technologies.

“Such costs pose extraordinary risks to taxpayers if loan guarantees are granted,” the groups say in their letter, adding, “The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that about half of new reactor projects using loan guarantees will fail.”

The groups note that Areva’ first EPR, being built in Finland, is three-and-a-half years behind schedule and 75 percent over budget. Some 3,000 construction deficiencies have been identified at the Finnish site.

Given all of these factors, the groups wrote to Secretary Chu, “It would, at best, be grossly premature to provide a ‘conditional’ loan guarantee to any project that currently presents extraordinary risks to taxpayers, that currently suffers from serious and identified safety deficiencies, that uses a design that may not be certified, and that may not be eligible to receive a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

“At worst,” the groups warn, “risking taxpayer dollars on such projects at this time would be evidence of negligence given the preponderance of evidence that the EPR and the specific projects identified face substantial and perhaps insurmountable hurdles to licensing, construction, and operation.”

But John Hutson, president of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, says on the group’s website that many of the Central Valley’s farm product processing facilities and other businesses are moving out of the state because of California’s high energy rates, some of the highest in the nation.

“We came to the realization that California is not very prepared to meet an expected 40% rise in electrical demand by the year 2030,” Hutson said. “One 1600 megawatt nuclear power plant would go a long way in meeting electrical demands and job creation we desperately need. Our plan is to build two 1600 megawatt nuclear power plants and cool these plants with gray water that comes from the Fresno Wastewater plant.”

Areva maintains that the future EPR reactors would enable the State of California to satisfy growing demands in electricity while respecting its commitment to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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