A NEW generation of simpler, safer, and cheaper nuclear power plants is being designed by United States companies. And environmental opposition to at least some kinds of nuclear technology is weakening because the alternative is to burn more fossil fuel, which cause acid rain and the greenhouse effect. Light water reactors (LWRs) are widely used in the US and abroad, but fell out of favor here because of construction cost overruns, malfunctions, and fear of accidents. But Westinghouse Electric Corporation and General Electric Company are developing new designs for LWRs that feature simplified, ``natural'' safety systems.
GE has a contract to build one for Tokyo Electric Power Company, beginning early in the next decade. GA Technologies Inc. (formerly General Atomic Company), of San Diego, is moving ahead on design of a gas-cooled reactor that could be used either to make tritium, used in nuclear weapons, or to produce electricity.
A Westinghouse spokesman says that utilities in the US, as well as Japan and other countries, have expressed interest in and even support for its new reactor. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, for example, is a development partner in some of this US company's work in nuclear power.
The US Department of Energy (DOE), as well as American and Japanese utilities, committed well over $400 million to these projects in just the last year. Whether Congress funds all of the money contracted by DOE is another question. However, the presence of this much money is a telling sign of probable commercial application.
One central goal governing development of the next generation of nuclear power plants is to perfect factory-built designs that are certified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The ability to move pre-certified ``units'' of a plant to a construction site would greatly speed both construction and NRC approval of new plants. Also, the NRC is considering a shift from a two-stage licensing process to a one-stage process, shortening the approval route.
Westinghouse hopes to obtain NRC certification of its model no later than 1994. Its timetable calls for having a commercial power plant utilizing the revamped model in operation in the US before the end of the century. Experts say that it is around the mid-1990s that additional capacity to generate electric power will be needed in the US.
These revamped LWRs will utilize ``natural circulation'' of water and air in their safety systems. In an accident, there would be much less reliance on pumps, valves, emergency generators, and plant personnel than in present models. According to Robert Bruce, engineering manager for Westinghouse's Nuclear Systems Engineering Department, the new safety systems being developed for his company's LWRs will offer ``dramatic improvements'' over existing ones.
Westinghouse's new plants will be cheaper and quicker to build than present ones, Mr. Bruce says. And Westinghouse economists calculate, therefore, that the plants could produce power more cheaply than coal-fired plants, something that is not now the case for the latest plants.
Embrittlement of the containment vessel itself, Mr. Bruce says, will be reduced by three other major engineering changes: utilizing a low power density nuclear core, neutron reflectors, and more distance between the core and the vessel. These would also extend the life of the power plant, from a present average of 40 years to an expected 60 years, he says.
While some environmentalists are beginning to consider nuclear power as a necessary source of electricity, they do not endorse the revamped industry models. Jim MacKenzie, a physicist with World Watch Institute, and formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says there will be strong opposition to the revamped industry model. He points to a nuclear power plant project headed by Lawrence M. Lidsky, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a possible alternative model.
Sources in both the World Resources Institute and the Audubon Society - powerful environmental groups - say they now favor research on the Lidsky model - a modular, gas-cooled reactor. (See story, page 13.) Japanese firms are actively supporting this work as well, and Lidsky says he fears the US could lose out to the Japanese in applying the technology.
To have major US environmental groups back research on any kind of a nuclear power plant is an unnoticed political revolution in the US and a rather sure sign of a public debate to come on the whole subject.
MacKenzie comments: ``What Lidsky says about the advantages of his system is correct, but being right in this field is not enough. The US should look at his design and not accept beefing up the old light water [reactor] technology.''
Professor Lidsky says that despite the coming improvements in the Westinghouse and GE models, the chance of their melting down is not completely eliminated. The plants themselves could never be subjected to what he calls ``full-scale, worst-case tests'' - ie., a fuel meltdown. Lidsky adds: ``With nuclear power, the public will no longer accept a scientist just saying, `Trust me.''' He notes that the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, as well as the one at Chernobyl, still burn in the public's memory.