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NRC preparing for new types of reactors

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein said the NRC aims to recruit engineers familiar with new types of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein urged students at a regional conference recently held by Mizzou Engineering to tackle the complex technological issues he predicted nuclear engineers soon will face.

The nuclear renaissance now under way in the United States probably will generate plans for nuclear reactors unlike the light-water reactors that currently dominate reactor technology throughout the world, Klein said. Power plant manufacturers are likely to start proposing breeder reactors and gas- or sodium-cooled reactors, and the NRC will need engineers familiar with those technologies to regulate them, he said.

“We know that the nuclear engineering (field) of the future will be much different than it is today,” Klein said.

Klein, a Mizzou Engineering alumnus, spoke to about 150 students during the American Society of Mechanical Engineers regional conference run by the University of Missouri from March 28 through March 30. Student teams from 11 Midwest states attended the annual conference.

Klein noted that interest in nuclear power has soared in recent months, prompting applications for 15 new nuclear power reactors since last summer. Before those proposals, the NRC had not received an application for a new nuclear reactor since 1978, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

The NRC has ample staff members to review the new applications, along with the additional 18 power plant proposals officials expect to receive by 2010, said Eliot Brenner, director of the NRC Office of Public Affairs. Still, Brenner said the NRC is seeking engineers familiar with the new types of reactors officials believe they will be asked to review.

Each of the 104 commercial nuclear reactors already operating in the United States is a light-water reactor, using regular water to both sustain the nuclear chain reaction and keep the reactor core cool, Burnell said. But reactors that use a gas—such as helium—or liquefied sodium to cool the reactor can be more efficient, and may well be proposed, he said.

Burnell said reprocessing, in which usable uranium and plutonium is extracted from “spent” fuel, already is employed in other countries and is being considered by some U.S. officials for use in another reactor design, called a “fast” or “breeder” reactor. The NRC is recruiting in hopes of building up its knowledge base for these different types of reactors, he said.

“If we do all of those, we’ll need different skill sets,” Klein said.