• Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Lyons peers into a 'hot cell' (a shielded room where radioactive materials can be handled remotely) on a tour of the nuclear reactor on Tuesday, Feb. 28. At center is John Bernard, director of reactor operations at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and at right is David Moncton, director of the Nuclear Reactor Lab.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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NRC commissioner sees nuke role expanding

Nuclear power is destined to play a major role in America's energy future, but the industry needs more young scientists, a leader of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told an MIT crowd recently.

In the near future, U.S. utilities will seek to build 17 new nuclear reactors at 11 sites to go online by 2015, but NRC Commissioner Peter B. Lyons says that will be an "immense challenge," partly because the industry is losing people to retirement and there is a dearth of young people going into science and technology.

Lyons, a physicist who worked in weapons research at Los Alamos and as science advisor to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), was sworn in as one of five NRC commissioners about a year ago. He spoke at MIT on Tuesday, Feb. 28, about current and future regulatory perspectives on the U.S. nuclear power infrastructure.

While working for the senator, Lyons helped craft incentives for the nuclear power industry, hoping for one or two applications for new plants. Now that he's at the NRC, he's worried that the strategy was too successful: "The NRC is tremendously strapped (in terms of staff). We have to figure out how to process all these applications and do due diligence," he said.

No new U.S. construction permits have been issued for plants since 1978. In the meantime, countries such as Japan and France have moved ahead as world leaders in the industry, leaving the United States, which originally led the development of nuclear power, behind. The United States also lags in standardization that would allow more streamlined review of reactor design proposals and interchangeable training for different sites. "Our capability has partially atrophied," Lyons said.

Worries aside, Lyons is convinced nuclear power is central to America's energy future. "There's no doubt the national challenge is to meet growing needs for electricity in future decades," he said. "We should encourage fuel diversity and reduce dependence on foreign energy sources." He predicted that the "intermittent character of solar and wind" will prevent them from playing a dominant role as future energy sources. "I don't know how to get a large percentage -- as much as 15 or 20 percent -- from intermittent sources," he said.

Coal may be tapped for electricity needs but will require new cost-efficient and environmentally friendly plants. "The only other source is nuclear energy," Lyons said, and for nuclear energy to play a "strong supporting role, the public has to be confident of the safe and secure operation of existing plants."

Lyons cited a "very serious incident" in 2002 at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio, in which boric acid ate through six inches of a reactor pressure vessel head. "This could have been worse," he said; nevertheless, it indicated "serious failures on the part of the licensee and the NRC. We definitely don't want to see that again." Lyons said a new oversight process is in place with more "objective, timely criteria for assessing performance" in reactor safety, radiation safety and safeguards against security threats.

Despite questions raised by the media about the security of research reactors such as the one at MIT, Lyons said, "Our civilian power plants are among the most secure sites in the entire world ��� no credible scenarios could result in radiological consequences from an attack."

Lyons' talk was sponsored by the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development and the Engineering Systems Division.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2006 (download PDF).

Topics: Energy, Special events and guest speakers


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