Construction continues on the first nuclear reactors to be built in South Carolina for nearly 30 years, despite the fact the new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County still have not received final approval.
The reason for the early work is the sheer scope of what has to be done at the South Carolina Electric & Gas site if the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors are to go online in 2016, as planned. However, environmentalists say they believe the construction is continuing too quickly after a series of accidents at Japanese plants last month.
Under federal guidelines, the company is allowed to build support facilities and other sections of the plant– short of installing the reactor itself– before it receives its final safety evaluation. Known as a Combined Construction and Operating License (COL), it’s an effort to streamline the process for new reactors.
It replaced a two-step process that required separate licenses for construction and operating. Prior to the change, if opposition emerged after a site was completed and before it began operating, the power utility risked a tremendous financial hit. Under a COL, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducts reviews of the V.C. Summer site during construction and holds another public hearing upon its completion to determine if the site meets the agency’s criteria.
Alan Torres is construction manager of the new site. He explained how much construction SCE&G could do over the next few months.
We can do a certain level of activity. We can build cooling towers, because those are non-safety components. I can begin to fabricate safety-related components; I just cannot install them into the plant themselves.
The work involved in the new sites is immense. SCE&G has cleared more than 2,600 acres, totalling 13 million cubic yards of dirt. A special, heavy-lift derrick has to be built on-site that will be more than 50 stories tall when complete– and capable of lifting over 7,000 tons at once– making it one of the largest in the world.
Friends of the Earth is one of several environmental groups publicly lobbying SCE&G to slow down its construction. The group’s Southeast coordinator Tom Clements said the company is moving forward too soon after a partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan last month.
That really flies in the face of many decades of the guiding philosophy of the nuclear power industry that they learn from mistakes. They pause and take all that into account. But, SCE&G is just acting like nothing happened and it’s not going to have any impact on the schedule. I think that’s very dangerous.
NCWARN, a “climate-protection” group, filed a petition with the NRC two weeks ago urging the agency to hold off its approval of the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors until the Fukushima investigation was finished. The group also cited concerns about whether or not the new reactor’s shield cover could withstand an earthquake or airplane crash.
Robert Yannity is a spokesman for SCANA, SCE&G’s parent holding company. He says the utility is taking great pains to study the Fukushima situation.
The organizations involved in the nuclear industry are certainly taking a look at the events in Japan. The one thing the industry does very, very well is take lessons learned from events like this and others, and puts them into practice. You will certainly see that moving forward in the long term.
However, the utility warns any major delays in construction will rapidly drive up its costs.
SCE&G is financing the estimated $10 billion construction with rate hikes on its customers that began in 2009. State-owned utility Santee-Cooper also holds a minority share of the new reactors. However, the public utility is trying to reduce its role, citing less future demand than first anticipated.
The biggest safety component of the AP1000 reactor is its “passive core cooling system” which is designed to automatically shut down the reactor in the event of a complete power loss– which is what happened at Fukushima– by using gravity, circulation, and pressure.
However, opponents say the plant’s strength is also its weakness. Clements pointed to a large reserve water tank which is part of the passive system, saying it was on top of “a rather flimsy building” that could be knocked down by an earthquake or tornado.
Yannity said the AP1000 is specially designed to withstand the worst natural events that could occur in the region. He said the cooling tanks were included in those scenarios.