Public Confidence, Waste Disposal Top List of Nuclear Power Concerns

Article excerpt

THROUGH a series of legislative, regulatory, and commercial decisions, the United States is establishing the course of the next 40 years for its nuclear power industry, say energy experts.

Nuclear power remains an emotional subject for many people. Restoring battered public confidence is essential, say boosters and critics of the industry.

That is why the shutdowns of the Yankee Rowe and Maine Yankee reactors last week were significant steps forward in restoring that confidence, these experts say.

The US still has a long way to go in developing an overall energy policy, says David Rossin, former assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy in the Reagan administration and president-elect of the American Nuclear Society. Nuclear power must be seen as only one of the elements of a national energy strategy, he says.

Merely providing better information does not mean more nuclear plants should be or will be built, or that older plants will be relicensed, says Robert Pollard, a nuclear safety engineer and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety official.

Nuclear power generates 20 percent of the nation's electricity; in nine states, the industry provides one-third of the electricity used.

Of the 110 reactors now in operation, 66 will need their operating licenses renewed by the NRC in the early part of the next century.

Given the long lead-time in the licensing process - at least 10 years - and the fact that no new nuclear plant has been ordered since 1974, industry sources say the US must squeeze a longer life out of the existing plants.

A commercially viable and publicly perceived safe way to build and operate new plants is also needed, they say.

How many old plants will actually apply for license extensions? The NRC's best estimate is 70 percent.

There are two separate safety issues in the relicensing process, says Mr. Pollard, who also represents the Union of Concerned Scientists on nuclear issues.

Are the plants as safe now as when they were first built? Should the plants that apply for license renewal have to meet new, and tougher requirements established since their original license was granted? …

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