Friday, February 27, 2009

Nuclear power industry looks ahead to the present

News out of Washington, D.C., that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had voted to require any new nuclear power plants to be able to withstand crashes by commercial jetliners certainly raises at least one question: Why is this a new rule? And another: Aren't all nuclear plants designed like that? As it turns out, this is a new rule because no existing nuclear facilities in the United State are required to protect against such an attack or accident, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The new rule, which requires plant designers to create facilities that either cannot be penetrated by such a crash or that will continue to operate even after a crash, was proposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. In the New York attack, two jetliners struck the World Trade Center and brought down its two 110-story skyscrapers. Still, some industry officials and NRC members opposed the new rule, contending that the possibility of such an attack or catastrophe was too remote and the cost of compliance too great, CNN said. Possibly as a result of such opposition, the new rule is stated in language subject to interpretation and does not specify what steps plant owners are required to take, CNN said. Also, the new rule does not affect existing nuclear power plants, the network said. "This decision will go a long way toward protecting Americans from the horrific possibility that terrorists could target our nuclear plants with large aircraft," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts. NRC Chairman Dale Klein, who had opposed earlier drafts, called the final rule a "common-sense approach" that will result in a very wide margin of safety. The new designs must protect both the reactor cores and pools of spent fuel, which are usually stored on the plant sites. The NRC said it has already taken steps to improve security at existing nuclear plants, including a 2002 rule mandating plans to cope with large explosions and fires from any cause. Even though an agreement was reached in this instance, the continuing reluctance of the nuclear power industry and its backers to recognize the extraordinary steps necessary to adequately protect the public raises many more questions about proposals to expand such power generation in the United States.

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