This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Security Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.
Joseph Pilat of Los Alamos opened the session with the question: Is the United States on the verge of a "nuclear renaissance"? According to Pilat, the consensus appears to be that it's still too early to tell. But, renaissance or no, there has been a "growing interest" in nuclear power over the last few years. It has been invoked by those in favor of U.S. energy independence, carbon reduction for global warming, and a host of other causes.
Against the backdrop of this heightened interest in nuclear power, Peter Lyons stated that the NRC's overarching goal is to be a "strong, credible and consistent regulator" of nuclear use in America. In its capacity as a regulator, he noted, the NRC does not promote nuclear power, but rather enables industry to make use of it legally and safely.
Underlying the growing nuclear energy field is the skyrocketing electrical needs of the U.S. By 2030, Lyons estimates, the U.S. will need 40-50 percent more power than it currently generates, and there is an increasing realization that that power must come from a variety of sources and technologies. Nuclear power has recently been touted as an element of the global warming solution and for newer "passive design" plants that require fewer operator actions.
To demonstrate the extent of the interest in building more nuclear power plants in the United States, Lyons charted the number of new applications the NRC has received. There are currently thirty-two individual unit applications being reviewed by the NRC, which represents a dramatic increase in recent years. Many of these units will be considered for a Combined Operator License (COL), a licensing program that Lyons said represented a significant improvement over the older system.
In the COL process, a would-be power plant operator submits a complete design to the NRC for approval. In contrast to the previous method, where some of the licensing happened only after the plant construction had begun, the COL program allows the NRC to evaluate the safety of the entire project upfront, from plant placement to construction to operation. Although, Lyons said, the U.S. nuclear industry is hurt by not standardizing its plants the way France does, COLs remove much of the uncertainty that formerly deterred utilities from building nuclear plants.
As this ramping up of U.S. generating capacity occurs in coming years, nuclear safety will remain the NRC's top priority.
For the United States, the long period spent without the construction of new nuclear reactors has had a problematic effect on the human resources side of the industry. Because other countries have not had similar lulls in their nuclear programs, Lyons said that increased international competition has seen many qualified workers leave the country. On top of that, the educational infrastructure needed to support a growing nuclear industry is "ailing." The number of nuclear engineering programs and graduates nationally is declining, just at the time when they are most needed.
Stressing the need for international cooperation, Lyons concluded that such collaboration is crucial for the training of qualified engineers and for the manufacturing of specialty components of nuclear reactors.