WASHINGTON -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed a new requirement Tuesday for nuclear reactor builders to consider how they might increase protection against an airliner crash.
The rule, however, does not propose any specific standards nor mandate design changes.
"This proposal gives us the chance to assess and make practicable changes to new reactor designs early in the design process," said NRC Chairman Dale Klein.
The proposal, expected to be made final later this year after a public comment period, was approved by a 4-1 vote.
U.S. companies are considering building as many as 30 new nuclear power reactors.
Commissioner Gregory Jaczko, who voted against the measure, had wanted the NRC to establish specific design standards and require that new reactors withstand aircraft impacts.
His four colleagues on the commission didn't want to go that far and his proposal was rejected, also by a 4-1 vote.
The NRC has certified two reactor designs with several additional ones expected to be certified in the near future. The agency anticipates receiving applications for the first construction and operating licenses before the end of the year.
Among the thorniest issues facing the NRC and reactor builders is to what extent the new plants will be protected if a terrorist were to fly a large plane into the concrete containment dome or the plant's fuel storage pool.
The new NRC proposal requires companies seeking design approval to first "assess how the design, to the extent practicable, can have greater built-in protection to avoid or mitigate the effects of the large commercial aircraft impact," the agency said.
Such an assessment, according to the proposal, should specifically consider design improvements in reactor cooling systems, integrity of the containment vessel and protection of reactor fuel storage pools.
Jaczko, in a telephone interview, said the biggest shortcoming in the proposal "is that it asks questions without getting answers."
"We're requiring assessments to be done, but we have put in place no standards for what criteria those designs have to meet to be acceptable," Jaczko said. "We're not requiring them to fix the design."
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a frequent critic of the NRC, said the agency "abdicated its responsibility to protect the American people against a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor" by not requiring that a new reactor be designed to withstand the impact of a large aircraft.
Markey said the proposed assessment "amounts to a nuclear book report which the NRC may or may not grade" when submitted by reactor vendors.
The three reactor designs that have attracted the greatest interest from American utilities are from Westinghouse Electric Co., owned by Toshiba Corp.; General Electric Co.; and the French conglomerate Areva Group.
The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor already has received NRC certification, while both the Areva and GE reactor designs are in the application process.
All three companies have said their new reactors will be designed with more passive safety features and other improvements to enhance safety. The Areva design, for example, includes a double-hull containment dome.
The ability of reactors to withstand an aircraft impact has been a subject of intense controversy.
The 103 reactors now in use were designed under regulations that did not require consideration of a direct hit by an aircraft, but concern over such an event has increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The nuclear industry has produced computer models that indicate even a direct hit on a reactor would not penetrate the concrete dome and internal reactor vessel. Skeptics have doubts and fear that an explosion and fire from such a crash could release radiation.
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Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov
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