Nuclear mattersSafety concerns remain about Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design

Published 13 December 2010

The United States and the United Kingdom are yet to approve the latest reactor design from Westinghouse; regulators in both countries are not convinced that the reactor can effectively withstand man-made or natural disasters; these concerns notwithstanding, China is pushing forward with an ambitious nuclear energy program which will see sixty AP1000 reactors built by 2010; the scope and pace of the Chinese program, and the fact that at its core is a reactor with possible design weaknesses, are a cause of more concerns

Coming on the heels of the announcement last month that Westinghouse Electric Co. expects that China will order additional AP1000 Nuclear Reactors, concerns about the safety of the reactor still remain unresolved. The reactors pose potential threats to public safety in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster and it is questionable whether China has the resources in place to meet the demand of the accelerated roll-out, while at the same assuring that safe facilities are built.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have asked for additional assurances that the third generation of Westinghouse’s reactor will yield a design that will be able to withstand potential external damage. On 25 November, Bloomberg News reported that China was working with Westinghouse to develop the next generation of nuclear technology. In a 2007 accord, China and Westinghouse signed an agreement to build four of the AP1000 reactors. Now, three years later, the company is poised for additional, fast-paced development that China hopes will result in sixty new reactors by 2020.

The certification process for the reactors is continuing to move forward, but the U.S. and U.K. regulators have not yet provided a full certification. Reuters reported on a statement made by a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Kristine Svinicki, in September of this year that she did not expect a final decision on certification until 2011 or 2012 when the review process would be complete. The following month, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell indicated that it has not been determined whether the AP1000 can meet the post 9/11 mandate which requires that the reactor must withstand the impact of a plane crash and stated that more tests are needed.

As we have reported, U.S. and the U.K. regulators are not yet convinced that AP1000 design can effectively withstand man-made and natural disasters (see “NRC rejects Westinghouse’s new nuclear reactor design,” 24 October 2009 HSNW; “U.K.: New nuclear reactors might not stand up to terrorist attacks,” 18 February 2010 HSNW”; and “China’s nuclear reactors to use technology rejected by U.S., U.K. as unsafe” 7 July 2010 HSNW).

The ambitious pace China has set for building the new reactors could also pose safety concerns. Westinghouse has begun the technology transfer through information sharing and training, but questions remain whether China will be able to support the product development and the needed supply and demand. Quality control concerns are already being raised as China works to assure they have the workforce with the skills and expertise that can support the high paced roll-out. Power-Gen Worldwide reports that Chinese regulations that prohibit the same company from manufacturing and designing the same product are also hindering the process. If China is successful by 2020 they will lead the world in the generation of nuclear energy.

According to an NRC press release of 26 November, the NRC Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards will meet in Rockville, Maryland. The final safety evaluation report associated with the amendment to the AP1000 reactor design control document is scheduled to be on the agenda.