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Old threat returns


The biggest threat to nuclear power has returned like Godzilla from Tokyo Bay.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that the Westinghouse design for the AP-1000 nuclear plant hasn’t been tested enough to ensure it can withstand natural disasters.  We’re not told why this is just coming up now since the basic design features have been out there for years.  Maybe it’s because the NRC could not rule until there was a formal submittal to the Commission, and the formal submittals are just now being made by the various utilities.  The gist:  Associated Press and Wall Street Journal are reporting that the outer “shield” building which houses the containment structure is using a construction method not previously tested for this service.

For those not in the nuclear business, the “untested configuration” sounds ominous.  Having worked for many years in nuclear licensing, however, I’m a wee bit skeptical.  It’s too easy for a regulator to play the old game of bring-me-a-rock, and the regulator pays no price for being obtuse.  The history of these regulatory quibbles is that it’s exceedingly difficult for the regulated business to bring exactly the correct rock to satisfy the anonymous functionary who raised the issue.  If the concern in this instance were, say, seismic protection, how do you make sure you’ve tested for the right kind of earthquake?  The anonymous functionary can always send you back for more data and keep doing that until the end of the earth.

Hopefully, Westinghouse and the NRC will get this ironed out and let the interested parties keep on ambling down the road toward licensing and building these units.  The country needs them.  The economy needs them.  The jobs market needs them.  The energy sector needs them.  The construction industry needs them.  And America’s sense of national confidence needs them.  Let’s hope the NRC is not going all 1980s retro on us, playing nasty bureaucrat games which bring industries to ruin through billions of dollars of delays while neither serving the public nor improving safety.

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