PITTSBURGH - Two U.S. representatives from Pennsylvania are advocating that the federal government back a new generation of miniature nuclear reactors that could power neighborhoods.
Reps. Jason Altmire, a Democrat, and Tim Murphy, a Republican, announced Friday at the Western Pennsylvania headquarters of Westinghouse that their proposal calls for construction by 2021 of two small nuclear reactors, both funded partially by the Department of Energy. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the plan was part of their efforts to give Western Pennsylvania a role in energy legislation expected from Congress this year.
Westinghouse has designed a small modular reactor that would shrink nuclear operations to one capsule about 90 feet tall, would not need to be near a large body of water for cooling, and could be within miles of an industrial plant, military base, or neighborhood to be powered, officials said.
The seven-month-old project is still in the "nursery" stages of research and development, chief executive officer Aris Candris said, but Westinghouse envisions the plants as something that can be put anywhere, like a windmill.
Altmire introduced the measure last year to no avail, but he said higher gasoline prices had improved the environment for energy legislation. Scrutiny of the nuclear industry has intensified, however, since a March 11 earthquake triggered a tsunami that knocked out cooling systems at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, causing the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
"You can't pretend Japan didn't happen," Altmire said, but he added that the smaller reactors would use the same safety mechanisms as the company's larger ones, including a passive cooling system that can douse overheated reactors with water stored inside the chamber.
Within hours of Friday's announcement, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a statement calling on Westinghouse to respond to technical issues that the agency said it had found in the design of the company's flagship AP1000 reactor, such as the design of the reactor's shield building and some pressure expected within the containment. Westinghouse said in a statement that it would continue to work with the commission, but that none of the issues was "safety-significant."