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NRC Deals With Application Surge, Proliferation Threat

By Michael Lucibella

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In a recent speech, the Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission emphasized the importance of maximizing the safety and security of nuclear power plants. Currently, the Commission is inundated with the most construction applications in three decades.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko said that one of the biggest challenges facing the agency is the large number of applications for new power plants. When he first took the post he expected to see one or two new applications; however, the agency is currently considering 13 applications, down from a peak of 18.

“It’s a significant change for the agency to have this many applications in front of them,” Jaczko said.

He added that he felt the agency was properly prepared to address the swell of applications and had increased the size of its staff accordingly.

There has been a big push on the part of the Obama administration to encourage the development of nuclear power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. It increased loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants from $18.5 billion authorized in 2005 to $54 billion. Despite this push, only one plant has completed the licensing process and begun construction. Jaczko said he was more concerned with having an effective approval process rather than with the number of plants built.

“I think our focus is: If there are plants, they are safe. How many there are is up to the utilities,” Jaczko said.

He emphasized that the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was a turning point for the nuclear power industry. Since then, with the exception of the one currently under construction, no new nuclear power plants have been built. As a result of the accident, the agency worked to establish better management to implement regulations at plants.

“I think fundamentally those improvements led to an improvement in safety,” Jaczko said. “The issue of a safety culture is an important issue for the agency.”

Though no major accidents at facilities have occurred since Three Mile Island, Jaczko cautioned against institutional overconfidence at power plants.

“We need to be wary of the view that just because it hasn’t happened in the past, it can’t happen in the future,” Jaczko said. “The core of that is instilling the right safety culture in every facility.”

Another concern over nuclear safety is the potential misuse of the technology for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The start of construction by General Electric of a plant in North Carolina to enrich uranium using a new process called SILEX has attracted such concerns. The Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation uses lasers to purify nuclear fuel by ionizing the atoms of the U-235 isotope. A charged plate then collects the charged uranium atoms. It is thought that this method would require less energy to enrich nuclear fuel than the existing method using centrifuges.

Experts have raised concerns that a SILEX facility could be easily concealed from surveillance satellites by an unfriendly nation and used to create fuel for nuclear weapons. In March, Francis Slakey, a professor at Georgetown University and APS’s Associate Director of Public Affairs, co-authored a letter in Nature calling for the NRC to conduct a proliferation risk assessment for any domestic company looking to license the technology. Jaczko said that the NRC was still considering the matter.

“At this point the commission really hasn’t made a decision about this,” Jaczko said. 

He added that he thought that the current system in place was working well.

“The question is whether you really can control the information and the material,” Jaczko said, “I believe our approach to these two questions is adequate.”

He added that it was the suppliers, not the reactors, who were the biggest source of concern about proliferation. The suppliers of nuclear fuel are more decentralized and as a result are becoming more of a focus for the NRC as they are working to overhaul oversight generally of the entire fuel cycle.

“It’s more of a challenge on the enrichment side,” Jaczko said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos