Could New Nuclear Reactor Have Prevented Fukushima?


The first new nuclear reactor to be built in the U.S. in three decades is one step away from breaking ground. Federal regulators approved the design for the AP1000 reactor, which Westinghouse Electric Co. developed over 20 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved the design, a key certification that will be valid for 15 years.

On the day of the approval, CEO of Westinghouse  Aris Candris was interviewed by ABC News Now. "Everyone has heard of what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant," said Candris. "Had an AP1000 been on that site we would have got no nuclear news post-tsunami."

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered major damage in the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which hit Japan on March 11, 2011. The tsunami disabled emergency power generators that are critical to cooling the reactor, setting up a dire situation that led to multiple partial meltdown, radiation leaks, and a massive evacuation of surrounding areas. The plant still hasn't reopened.

The AP1000 was designed prior to the Fukushima disaster, but unlike the GE-manufactured reactors at Fukushima, the new AP1000 doesn't rely on AC power for its systems. "We decided we needed to have a design that relied exclusively on natural forces," said Candris. "Things like gravity, convection , and the like. …" Candris says that aspect of the AP1000's design makes it safer. "It's the same basic concept, fission of uranium. But how that's being done in the system and the fact that eventually you end up with a much safer design than we've had in the past. Not that designs that are out there are not safe."

 "We don't think the AP1000 is clearly safer than the currently operating reactors for a number of reasons," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the nuclear watchdog group, Union of Concerned Citizens. "The reliance on passive systems have larger uncertainties in the way they function."  For example, Lyman says, in the event of an accident, the AP1000 could only continue to cool the reactor without AC power for a few days, after which it would need powered pumps to continue to operate, just like existing reactors. Lyman's group argues the nation would be better served if the NRC evaluated the AP1000's design in light of the flaws that became evident at Fukushima.

 "There were a lot of lessons from Fukushima and in spite of the fact that nuclear has been around for fifty years, it's still a learning industry," said Candris. "There's no question Fukushima had a significant impact on public opinion even though, especially in the US, that is turning around.

But images of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island still linger in the collective consciousness in the U.S., even though more than 100 nuclear power plants around the U.S. now supply almost 20 percent of the nation's electricity. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, done in April after the Fukushima disaster, found that 64 percent of people oppose new nuclear plant construction, a spike in opposition from previous years.

One selling point: The new reactors would bring thousands of jobs to the communities they're located in. Westinghouse already has orders for six reactors; four of them are already in "prenuclear" construction. The reactors would be added to existing nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina - communities that  Candris says "are very much in favor of more." Fourteen other utility companies in the U.S. have also expressed interest in AP1000s. China has four AP1000s already in the works.

Nuclear power remains a lightning rod issue among U.S. scientists and environmentalists. On the one hand, nuclear offers affordable, clean (if you don't count the waste) energy, mitigating U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. On the other hand, any potential nuclear accident could be catastrophic, as evidenced at Fukushima.

The next and last regulatory hurdle for Westinghouse before nuclear construction can begin is a combined operating license from the NRC, which Candris expects to obtain in a month.