NRC Seeks Comments On Whether New Reactors Should Be Designed To Withstand Airplane Crash

10 October 2007
Foster Electric Report
English (c) 2007 Foster Associates, Inc.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is seeking comments on a proposal to require applicants for new nuclear reactors to assess how well a particular reactor design could withstand a large commercial aircraft crash.

Announced on Oct. 3, the proposed rule would apply to new reactor design applications and combined license applications where the reactor design has yet to be approved by the NRC. "The commission certainly understands that post-9/11 there is a concern" about whether a nuclear power plant could withstand a large plane crash, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

Because the advanced boiling water reactor that NRG Energy proposes to use at its South Texas project expansion has already been certified by the NRC, that reactor design would not be affected by the proposed rule. Moreover, given that this is a proposed rule, reactor designs already submitted but not yet approved by NRC could win certification before the rule becomes final.

Some nuclear watchdog groups have maintained that the NRC should require special protective measures at existing reactors, such as building a "beamhenge," a giant cage-like steel structure over the existing reactor building. The Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group, has a two-minute video on its website -- -- narrated by actor Martin Sheen, illustrating how such a setup might work.

The NRC continues to believe existing nuclear power plants could withstand the crash of a commercial airliner, Burnell said. While an existing plant might not be able to continue to operate, the NRC believes that the existing facilities are robust enough to prevent the release of radiation, he added. "The NRC has been spending a lot of time and a lot of resources in examining this issue," Burnell stated.

While the agency does not believe that any nuclear power plants should be required to defend against large commercial aircraft, the proposed rule noted that the NRC works closely with other federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the intelligence community, to provide layered protection against such a threat. The agency expects these efforts would effectively preclude an aircraft attack from occurring, but should such an event take place at a new plant designed in accordance with the proposed rule, the NRC expects the plant would be better able to withstand such a crash.

Nuclear power plants are designed under very stringent requirements to assure they can safely shut down following "design-basis events," such as large fires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as equipment malfunctions such as pipe breaks. The proposed rule establishes large commercial aircraft crashes as something that would go beyond design-basis events. In addition, the proposal is meant to provide an early look at new reactor designs upfront, to consider possible modifications to make nuclear plants even more robust, Burnell said.

The NRC has already taken several steps to improve security at existing nuclear power plants, including adopting a rule in January updating the agency's design basis threats regulations to reflect recent experience and insights. For example, the final rule contains provisions related to multiple, coordinated groups of attackers, suicide attacks, and cyber threats -- all of which the NRC considers to be much more "realistic"potential modes of attack than a large airplane crash.

Comments on the proposed rule will be due within 75 days of its publication in the Federal Register.

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