Failed Nuclear Project Illustrates Critical Need for PEs

January/February 2018

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Failed Nuclear Project Illustrates Critical Need for PEs

BY ARIELLE EISER

Construction siteThe failed construction of two multibillion-dollar nuclear reactors in South Carolina is raising serious questions about the events and causes leading to the project’s demise. According to multiple sources, including media reports and statements by licensed professional engineers familiar with these events, Westinghouse Corp. and other contractors allegedly used unqualified and unlicensed individuals to design aspects of two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer site, placing the public health and safety at risk.

Documents obtained by Charleston’s Post and Courier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, show that construction drawings used at the site were not prepared, reviewed, or approved by licensed professional engineers. According to reports, state and federal officials were not informed that unqualified and unlicensed workers were preparing design documents or conducting complex engineering calculations. These practices allegedly contributed to thousands of design revisions, construction setbacks, schedule changes, and the ultimate demise of the entire project.

Recognizing that this devastating incident demonstrates yet again the need for strong engineering licensing laws, NSPE is taking a proactive, multifaceted approach to ensure that the circumstances leading to this project failure are identified. Our goal is to strengthen the role of engineering licensure in future projects, mitigating the potential for similarly negative outcomes. NSPE has been discussing the situation with the South Carolina Society of Professional Engineers to closely monitor state-level investigations. A complaint has been formally filed with the state engineering licensure board to examine whether the project followed engineering requirements.

This project, however, is not just a state issue. It is also very much a federal issue. The nuclear reactors in South Carolina were supposed to usher in a new era of nuclear power generation, followed by other nuclear reactor projects across the nation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Congress spent many years creating policies and developing plans to position this industry for success.

Therefore, NSPE called upon the NRC to conduct a thorough and complete investigation into the events leading to the shutdown of construction of the two nuclear reactors in South Carolina. In the October 26 letter to the NRC, NSPE President Tom Roberts, P.E., F.NSPE, stated, “A professional engineering license demonstrates a commitment to standards of engineering practice and ethical conduct by individuals possessing the necessary education, experience, and qualifications to provide critical engineering services to the public.… The public interest is best served when qualified individuals have not only proper technical expertise, but also a clear safety obligation that overrides all other considerations.”

NSPE understands that not all design elements of a nuclear facility (e.g., the nuclear island) currently require a professional engineer to be in responsible charge. However, in South Carolina and most states, drawings for large building projects require the signature and seal of a PE, especially when that construction affects public health and safety. Yet, as the nuclear expansion got underway north of Columbia, neither state nor federal officials were told that unlicensed workers were preparing drawings, plans, and specifications and were conducting complex engineering calculations. This left professional engineers and others questioning the entire construction process that, before it was cancelled in July 2017, wasted $9 billion.

As a direct result of NSPE’s letter, the NRC has initiated an investigation into the concerns that NSPE has raised, specifically that unqualified and unlicensed individuals were preparing design documents and conducting complex engineering calculations, resulting in thousands of revisions, setbacks, and schedule overruns. The investigation is ongoing and NSPE will provide an update on the NRC’s findings as soon as they become available.

In addition to urging the NRC to investigate the circumstances leading to the nuclear reactor construction shutdown, NSPE is also urging Congress to initiate its own investigation. NSPE has reached out to key members of Congress, including members of the South Carolina delegation and PE members of Congress. Discussions are ongoing and NSPE continues to work with Congress to address best next steps.

The critical need for professional engineers to ensure the public health, safety, and welfare has never been clearer. We have seen repeatedly, whether it be the Gold King Mine blowout, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and now the V.C. Summer nuclear reactor construction shutdown, that professional engineers are vital to ensuring that the most important engineering projects are properly designed, constructed, and operated.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s associate director of government relations and advocacy.