Reactor Plans ‘Rushed,’ had ‘Impossible’ Construction Tolerances
By RON AIKEN
Rushed to market to inaugurate a nuclear renaissance in the United States, Westinghouse’s AP1000 nuclear reactor was a design nightmare that took 19 revisions before receiving approval from the federal government, was less than half-designed when it was sold to utilities and was so fatally flawed with “impossible” construction tolerances that it was, in effect, an “unbuildable” reactor, a top manager who worked at the VC Summer Nuclear Station since the project’s inception told Quorum on condition of anonymity.
How a reactor that Westinghouse billed as more economical and quicker to construct than any reactor before it became the most expensive and difficult-to-build reactor than any before it is simple, said the source who worked with experts from each of VC Summer’s primary contractors: The Shaw Group, Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I) and Fluor.
“The biggest problem with that plant was the design,” they said. “You can start and stop right there. Yes the management of it was run terribly. I saw contractors charging for everything they could with the belief the money would never end. And yes the oversight by SCANA and Santee Cooper was terrible. They were never ingrained into construction management teams.
“They’d show up to morning management meetings where we’d be talking about schedules, change papers, the delivery of modules and even companies hired on as vendors through our QA (quality assurance) programs who were sending us things we had to re-work on site, and their input would be things like ‘work harder.’ They had no idea because they’re a utility, not a nuclear plant construction team. They’d just walk around. They never ramped themselves up to hire people to do construction oversight or do what Georgia Power (the primary utility behind the troubled Plant Vogtle, the only other site in the U.S. attempting to build AP1000s) did and hire someone to do it who knows how.
“Yes all those issues were important, but they would never have been as important or gotten as magnified as they did had Westinghouse produced a buildable design. They didn’t, and that was really what doomed the project to failure before dirt was ever moved.”
‘DOOMED TO FAIL’
Westinghouse designed its AP1000 model after its previous effort at a next-generation nuclear plant, the AP600, was approved in 1999 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1999 but received no commercial orders.
“There was a recognition that utilities wanted output higher than the AP600, so Westinghouse went back to the drawing board and sharpened their pencils for a new, more powerful reactor but they kept the footprint for the AP600, which was a critical mistake.
“Because they didn’t want to redesign the entire plant, they took the new AP1000 design and shoved it into the AP600 footprint, and what happened was it ate up all their margin (for error). Any construction project is doomed to fail when it has no margin for changes, and new change papers were getting written every day.”
Not only were change papers a daily feature of construction on site, they also were a feature of the designs for the AP1000 Westinghouse had to submit to the NRC for approval.
After gaining “final” approval for the design in January 2006, which allowed Westinghouse to begin selling it to customers such as SCANA, Georgia Power and China, the need for design “amendments” began almost immediately, the first coming in March 2006, just three months after its initial approval.
“In 2009 when construction activities started, it was said that the design was not complete for domestic application,” the source said. “The rumor was that the AP1000 design was only 30 percent completed when it was sold.”
Four more major design amendments to the AP1000 would follow over the next five years, including government regulators discovering a significant design flaw in the reactor’s critical shield building in 2011 that came well after ground had been broken at VC Summer and Plant Vogtle and resulted in even more delays as Westinghouse engineers submitted round after round of revised calculations.
Speaking to the New York Times in May 2011, a NRC official described the urgency of the issue.
“They (Westinghouse) need to be doing the work correctly and completely, and we need to have confidence that that’s what they’re doing,” said one commission official not authorized to be quoted by name. “They have additional work they need to do, and a short time to complete it if it’s not going to have a significant impact on their schedule.”
The final “final” amendment was accepted by the NRC in December 2011.
Problems at the site began early, in part because of a lack of home-grown nuclear construction expertise since no new reactors had been built in the U.S. following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
“Things started out bad and got worse,” the source said. “No one knew what they were doing, especially Shaw.”
Shaw was hand-picked by Westinghouse to build both the Plant Vogtle and VC Summer units based largely on Shaw’s 2000 acquisition of Boston-based Stone & Webster, a former engineering blue-blood (it built MIT’s campus) that had played a huge role in nuclear plant construction from the 1950s to the 1970s before collapsing in spectacular fashion in the wake of an international bribery scandal.
“Shaw came into the project going off the Stone & Webster program,” the source said. “Shaw didn’t want to update the Stone & Webster procedures because I was told they estimated the cost to update them at between $2 and $3 million dollars.
“Between Stone & Webster’s procedures and what we got from Westinghouse, there were more than 562 procedures, many of which did not agree with one another or have any way to communicate with each other.
“So we started the project with outdated procedures with built-in problems while new requirements were being thrown at us constantly.”
Those problems, both in scope and scale, continued to mount as years passed. When the project was taken over by CB&I following its purchase of The Shaw Group in July 2012, the repetition of mistakes across the life of the build led new managers to suggest to Westinghouse that they compile error and change reports site-wide in order to anticipate future issues and adjust practices.
“A former CB&I site director wanted to track all design change paperwork and codify it,” they said. “We wanted to know whether a problem was a design bust or a construction problem. Those are very important things to know.”
Westinghouse, however, wanted none of it.
“They balked,” the source said. “They didn’t want anything to do with it. We could have done it and have been able to hold Westinghouse accountable for design busts, but Westinghouse didn’t want to pay a contractor more money for the work doing it, and even more importantly it didn’t want a big batch of data to exist anywhere on its design problems while it was out selling the AP1000 around the world as a nuclear renaissance.”
The design busts continued, in part, the source said, because of the modular construction techniques required by the COL (combined license issued by the NRC).
“By requiring that the modules be built in one place, then delivered and set in place here, they were already out of tolerances when they arrived,” the source said.
“Since change orders were happening all the time, between the time a module would be built and when it arrived, you’d have a huge component that couldn’t move one rebar width over because things were in the way that can’t go in until new change papers allow for accommodations, which could take weeks since they have to be approved by engineers according to NRC standards and the original design.
“That’s how you get crews standing around and material laying around for weeks and getting thrown away due to new changes that happened after pieces were fabricated. It created a logjam.
“It really was a perfect storm of everything you could have go wrong go wrong.”
NO NEW NUKES?
So far not one Westinghouse AP1000 rector has been completed anywhere, though Unit 1 at Sanmen in China is scheduled to come online this year.
“Westinghouse liked to mention their successes in China with the AP1000 plants being built there, but it’s important to remember that they are working to the intent of NQA-1 (the Nuclear Quality Assurance standards maintained by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) whereas we in the United States are required to be in full compliance to NQA-1 and are also under the oversight of the NRC.
“In layman’s terms, the plants in China made allowances for design busts of the AP-1000 design that we couldn’t take in here in the States without the changes going through full licensing reviews and design approvals before construction could proceed.”
If the massive failures at Plant Vogtle and VC Summer — failures of both cost and time that sunk Westinghouse and have nearly toppled Toshiba — cannot be overcome by new financing, the future of new nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. is grim.
“The question is ‘How much more good money do you want to throw after bad?,'” the source said. “There was no accountability, and I don’t know how you change that. There haven’t been any hangings in the town square, so to speak. SCANA didn’t come in and start participating like they should have until the 11th hour, two minutes before midnight.”
“The halting of construction at Jenkinsville is bad for the industry and it’s bad for the United States if it wants to be a nuclear leader. Regardless of your viewpoint on how you feel about leftover (nuclear) fuel, natural gas and coal are not going to last forever and there has to be a way forward.”
That way forward, at least for the time being, will not be new nuclear reactors thanks to the premature deployment of an unproven system whose failures have claimed thousands of jobs worldwide.
“Westinghouse sold what was in all practicality an unbuildable design, and unfortunately because of the problems that happened here and the costs involved, South Carolina will pay a price — especially SCE&G customers — and so will the country,” the source said. “We’re nowhere closer to ending our reliance on fossil fuels and have no solution to carbon emissions or the electrical needs of the future.
“It’s a tragedy on an enormous scale, and one we won’t know the real costs of for years, maybe decades, to come.”