Strong new argument advanced for standard nuclear plant design

Those who believe that standardization in the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants would alleviate many of the industry's problems have just been bolstered by a report of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

A low-level debate over moving from customized reactor design toward standard models has been going on for some time.

Supporters of increased standardization argue that it can help cut costs, enhance safety and streamline the licensing process. Opponents worry that the technology is not yet mature enough for such a step.

There is also industry resistance to extreme standardization, such as a single reactor design for all future plants. Such a policy would mean wholesale changes in the structure of the industry.

The OTA report, released May 20, concludes that standardization can play a vital role in maintaining a viable and safe program for nuclear energy by yielding safety benefits "that are intuitively valid, even if they cannot be demonstrated unambiguously," and by reducing the time and cost of building new nuclear plants.

While there is no proof that increased standardization would enhance the safety of nuclear reactors, there is a general "intuitive" feeling that this would be the effect, the OTA reseachers report.

This intuitive thinking holds that reducing the diversity that now exists in the nuclear industry would allow increased attention to be given to improving each plant design. It would also, proponents point out, increase the amount of operating experience for each design and make it possible for improvements at one plant to be immediately applied to others of similar design.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff feels that much of the confusion surrounding the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania resulted from the fact it is impossible for them to be familiar with the idiosyncracies of all of the 77 one-of-a-kind reactors in the nation.

The industry already has taken some steps toward greater standardization. Since the days of the Atomic Energy Commission the federal government has prompted this goal in a rather lackluster way. The NRC has also considered, but not implemented, one-step licensing, a procedure the OTA feels would give a big boost to standardization.

Anti-nuclear groups are against one-step licensing because it would give them only one chance to intervene against construction of a nuclear power plant. There are two steps in the current licensing procedure: a nuclear plant developer must go through a preliminary safety analysis report to get a construction permit; then, once the reactor is completed, it must pass a final safety analysis report before receiving an operating license.

According to the Ota, ever-increasing licensing delays, especially since Three Mile Island, reinforce the need to reexamine the merits of standardization.

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