U.S. nuclear program under greater scrutiny

the cable that had started it all. It was still failed, and ignited a second fire.”

In response to the report’s findings, a spokesman for Progress Energy, the plant’s operator, said, “We have the highest safety standards for our nuclear plants and our employees, and we work continuously to improve safety. We remain focused on addressing each of the events last year that led to special inspections.”

Nuclear power has featured prominently in the Obama administration’s plans to wean America of its dependency on foreign oil and transition to clean energy.

In February 2010, President Obama issued $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to energy companies planning to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first new nuclear plants in the United States in almost thirty years.

Given the heightened security concerns regarding nuclear energy, the already controversial reactor designs at the Georgia power plants will likely face increased scrutiny.

The proposed reactors, the Westinghouse AP1000, is currently open to public comment and the NRC plans to make a decision on whether to approve the designs and issue permits by late summer or early Autumn.

Critics of the design worry that in the event of an accident the reactors containment features are inadequate.

Current reactors function like a thermos bottle in which a reactor is housed within concrete walls several thick feet that are lined with steel. In the event of an accident, emergency systems would kick in and pump water and other coolants in to prevent a meltdown.

The AP1000 is designed to minimize the use of pumps, valves, and human operators, instead relying on natural factors like gravity and heat dissipation to cool the reactor in an emergency. The AP1000 reactor is surrounded by a free-standing steel shell that is housed in a concrete building with an air gap between them.

If an accident were to occur, the steel shell would conduct heat to the air gap, where a naturally created chimney effect would whisk the heat away. A large water tank on the roof of the building would provide additional cooling by using gravity to carry water to the reactor instead of pumps.

Critics worry that debris and water could become trapped in the air gap, blocking escaping heat while a hole in the concrete wall would disperse radioactive material over a wide radius. Critics also cite the fact that the steel lining of existing reactors have rusted through.

If approved, the reactor could be used in as many as fourteen nuclear power plants.

Despite these safety concerns, China has adopted the Westinghouse AP1000 as the standard for inland nuclear projects and is currently building twelve units. The reactors are expected to be completed sometime between 2013 and 2015.

China currently operates thirteen nuclear reactors and has dozens of nuclear projects planned, roughly 40 percent of all new nuclear projects planned in the world. China has issued a temporary stop on all new nuclear construction pending a safety review of its facilities.