U.S. nuclear plants to step up emergency plans: INPO

WASHINGTON Tue May 10, 2011 7:52pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some U.S. nuclear plants are not in full compliance with rules set up after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to respond to explosions and fires, a self-regulatory body for the nuclear industry has found.

The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO, found issues with where plants store and place equipment, and said plants with more than one reactor need to improve their ability to respond to emergencies affecting all the units, the president of the U.S. nuclear trade group said on Tuesday.

INPO inspected plants after Japan's Fukushima disaster, and found a series of improvements are needed, said Marvin Fertel of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"These findings already have been entered into corrective action programs to be resolved by those companies," Fertel said. He told reporters he could not provide specific details because he has not seen the data from the review, which he said has not been released publicly.

After the September 11 attacks, U.S. nuclear plants were required to add equipment and train workers for how to handle intentional plane crashes at their sites.

The INPO review also found plants can improve training for staff and improve coordination for first responders and vendors, Fertel said.

The overview of the findings comes as senior staff of the U.S. government's nuclear safety regulator prepare to give their first report on Thursday on possible safety improvements to the nation's 104 plants in the wake of Japan's disaster.

The president of INPO is slated to speak to the Nuclear Energy Assembly conference on Wednesday.

NEW U.S. PLANTS WILL GO AHEAD

The U.S. nuclear industry had been poised for growth for the first time in more than 30 years before the Fukushima disaster hurt public confidence in the industry.

In February, polls showed more than 70 percent of Americans favored nuclear energy -- a number that since Fukushima has slid to around 50 percent, said Gary Gates, chief executive of Omaha Public Power District.

"People are questioning nuclear power: is it safe enough? Should we build new plants in America? Should we shut down plants we have now?" said Gates, who also chairs the NEI.

Japan's Prime Minister said on Tuesday that his government would review its plans to build new reactors.

But the NEI forecasts the U.S. industry will build four to eight new plants in the 2016-2020 time frame, a projection it has held steady for three years, Fertel said.

Cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas, a competing source of electrical power, have hurt the economics for new nuclear plants, he said.

New plants cost an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion, a capital cost that eclipses the size of many utilities eyeing projects, said John Young, Chief Executive of Energy Future Holdings, a Texas-based power company.

While the Fukushima disaster will prompt changes in the United States, added costs will be "manageable" and won't make existing plants uncompetitive, said James Asselstine, a managing director at Barclays Capital who covers utilities and power companies.

"My suspicion is that the accident in Japan will not be a game-changer for the U.S. nuclear industry," said Asselstine, a former commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Asselstine said he expects four new plants to be under construction in the next three to five years, noting it takes a decade to develop, plan, license and build a new plant.

(Editing by Jim Marshall)

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