Applications for nuclear plants raise safety, oversight concerns

Power companies in the last three months have applied to build three nuclear reactors in Texas, Alabama and Virginia -- the first new nuclear power plants that industry has sought to build in the United States in three decades. The long-anticipated applications for combined operating licenses to build and operate new plants are just the first of dozens expected by federal regulators during the next few years.

The surge in reactor applications is eliciting mixed messages from senior government officials. Last Wednesday, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Energy Department, issued a statement commending Dominion North Anna LLC for submitting its application to build what's called an economic simplified boiling water reactor near Mineral, Va.

Dominion's application "demonstrates continued momentum for the expansion of safe, emissions-free nuclear energy in the United States," Spurgeon said.

The North Anna plant application stems from Energy's Nuclear Power 2010 program, an industry-government cost-sharing program aimed at developing the next generation of reactors, expanding the role of nuclear power and demonstrating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's untested new process for granting combined operating licenses.

If the North Anna plant is approved, it will serve as a model for utilities vying to construct the same type of reactor.

"Through cooperative partnerships with industry, loan guarantees and tax incentives, this administration is providing sound policy to pave the way for a nuclear renaissance that will power a secure and affordable energy future," Spurgeon said.

The same day Spurgeon was hailing Dominion's move, Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees commercial nuclear power, struck a more cautionary note at a conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I'm not an advocate for or against commercial nuclear power," said Klein. "My job is to ensure the safety and security of U.S. nuclear power plants and materials."

"There are two main concerns that persistently capture my attention," he added. "The first is whether there is sufficient quality assurance and control over myriad elements that go into building a modern nuclear reactor."

The supply chain for building new reactors is global, Klein said, and he worries that not enough scrutiny is being paid to subcontractors and vendors that supply parts and materials to major manufacturers.

He cited data compiled by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that show nuclear certificates granted by the professional accrediting association fell from nearly 600 in 1980 to fewer than 200 this year. "More strikingly, the decline was due almost entirely to the loss of nuclear certificates among American companies," he said.

To address the issue, Klein is pushing for more formal international cooperation and information sharing among regulators and industry. "Regulatory agencies and industry would benefit from sharing this data under normal circumstances, but it seems to me even more critical during the current worldwide push to build new plants.

"Everyone involved in nuclear power has an interest in encouraging high levels of safety and strong safeguards in every country that participates in the fuel cycle," Klein said.

Klein says his other major concern is the shrinking nuclear workforce -- both in government and industry -- at a time when the industry is expanding. "At the NRC, in one two-week pay period early this year, nearly 1,000 years of regulatory experience walked out of the agency due to retirements," he said.

To cope with a significantly increased workload, NRC estimates it will have to hire as many as 400 people every year through 2010 to both grow its workforce and offset retirements. It's a serious challenge, especially when industry and Energy laboratories are seeking to hire many of the same highly skilled people to meet their own staffing needs.

"None of our interests is going to be well-served if everyone spends time and money chasing after a limited number of candidates. Instead of bidding against each other, all of us -- industry and government alike -- must focus on an intensive nationwide effort to expand the base of qualified people," he said. "This is not a crisis yet, but it has the potential to become one."

The Energy Department estimates that demand for electricity in the United States will grow 50 percent over the next three decades. If nuclear power is to maintain its share of electricity supply -- now about 20 percent -- the number of nuclear power plants would have to grow from 104 to more than 150.

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