Nuclear Safety Rule Ignites Strong Reactions

President Bush, second from right, at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland with energy company executives and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, third from right. Unistar intends to build a new reactor there.
President Bush, second from right, at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland with energy company executives and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, third from right. Unistar intends to build a new reactor there. (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg)

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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Federal regulators' narrow approach to solving one of the United States' biggest post-Sept. 11 fears -- a terrorist flying a plane into a nuclear power plant -- is under attack for adding to public safety concerns.

Comments filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month said the agency's Oct. 3 proposal, which directs that only some new plant designs be assessed for risk to air attack, did not go far enough.

"By requiring only a limited subset of anticipated new reactors (less than half of the currently announced plants) to address aircraft impacts as part of the design, the NRC's proposed rule could undermine public confidence in new nuclear power plants," George Vanderheyden, president and chief executive of Unistar Nuclear Energy of Baltimore, told the agency in Dec. 17 comments.

Public acceptance of plant safety is considered critical to the rebirth of the nuclear industry, where there has been a de facto moratorium on new construction since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

The 104 existing reactors, which supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity, aren't covered by the proposed rule. Neither are unbuilt reactors whose designs already have been approved by the NRC.

Unistar intends to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Md., one of 32 planned by 17 utilities. Its design hasn't yet been approved by the NRC, so it would need to assess the risk of a plane attack under the proposed rule.

Other nuclear industry officials agreed with Vanderheyden. Westinghouse Electric and GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, whose designs already have NRC approval and thus aren't covered by the proposal, said they would do the risk assessments anyway.

"We don't have to do it, but our customers would have had questions from the public on why that [plant] won't withstand an airplane crash," Ed Cummins, vice president of regulatory affairs and standardization at Westinghouse, said in an interview. The Westinghouse design is scheduled to be used in 14 reactors now in the planning stage.

The commission and the industry say security at nuclear plants has been increased since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The agency ordered operators to do more to respond to explosions, fires and other threats.

Adding protection from air attack, such as an extra containment structure, could cost more than $100 million per reactor, according to Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group in the District.

"This proposed rule is not necessary for adequate protection, but rather is an enhancement that will result in newly designed facilities being more inherently robust against aircraft impacts than the facilities not subject to this proposed rule," the agency said in introducing it.

"The NRC remains confident that even though the impact of a large aircraft would be a large industrial accident, the probability of a crash that would lead to radioactivity getting into the environment is very low," said spokesman Scott Burnell.


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