March 28, 2006

New nuclear reactor plans raise questions

By Leonard Anderson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. nuclear power industry
is planning to build new reactors to produce cleaner
electricity and reduce dependence on more expensive natural
gas, raising questions about the safety of new plants.

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged development of
atomic power for more energy security, and big electric
utilities like Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co., and Progress
Energy have announced preliminary plans to develop reactors in
Virginia, the Carolinas and elsewhere.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog, aims
to ensure that new reactors will not possess design flaws that
must be corrected after they go into service, David Lochbaum,
director of nuclear safety at UCS, said in an interview on

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group,
anticipates utilities will build 12 to 15 new nuclear plants by
2015 to join the current 103 power reactors. A new
1,000-megawatt reactor may cost from $1.5 billion to $3
billion. One megawatt provides power for about 800 homes.

The last nuclear plant built in the United States was
Ameren's Callaway station in Missouri, which was licensed by
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1973 and began operations
in 1984, according to the NEI.

The Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and
the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 heightened safety
fears and effectively halted new reactor construction in the


Lochbaum of UCS questions whether ventilation systems at
new plants built adjacent to existing reactors could protect
control room operators from a radiation leak in an accident.

"New reactors are designed to be safer than existing plants
but when you build next to a reactor there is a potential for a
bigger radioactive cloud. You have to build a stronger
ventilation system," Lochbaum said.

Radiation exposure could sideline plant operators and harm
control room equipment. "You can't put the plant on autopilot,"
he said.

Six new reactor designs have been developed by three
companies -- Westinghouse Electric Co., owned by British
Nuclear Fuels Plc; General Electric Co.; and Areva Inc., a U.S.
subsidiary of French state-owned Areva.

Cooling water systems for the new reactors, security to
repel attacks, earthquake safety standards, and more nuclear
waste to dispose of are other issues that need to be examined
but none is a "show stopper at this point," Lochbaum said. "The
details need to be worked out."

Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at
NEI, said the current fleet of reactors "is operating safely
and NRC oversight will continue. There should not be large new
requirements but regulators will expect the new designs to be
safer than existing designs."

They will include more advanced systems to cool a reactor
in the event of a breakdown and more high-technology control
rooms where operators can run and monitor plant operations from
computer terminals instead of relying on physical switches and
manual inspections, Heymer said.

New designs also may lengthen the schedules to refuel
reactors to once every 36 months from the current industry
standard of 18 to 24 months, producing more revenues for
utility operators.

Where to store highly radioactive waste fuel rods and where
to find qualified workers also must be answered, Heymer said.

Opposition to the federal Yucca Mountain underground waste
dump in Nevada could delay storing waste there until 2020, and
a shortage of skilled nuclear plant craft workers like pipe
fitters, welders and quality control specialists could worsen.

"We are concerned. Half of the plant work force is retiring
in the next 10 years," he said.