The nuclear power industry wants the government to require companies to design new nuclear reactors that would better withstand large fires and explosions, such as those that could be caused by a terrorist attack using hijacked aircraft.

"If you need to change the design to accomodate greater security, particularly for large fires and explosions, you want to do that up front in the design process, not after you build the plant" as the government requires, said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The industry's position, set out in a Dec. 8 letter, runs counter to the government's.

More than a month ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to keep the current design rules — now more than a decade old — for new plants and make those facilities fulfill security requirements later.

At question is the Design Basis Threat, or DBT, the largely secret requirements for threats for which nuclear plant operators must be prepared. A hijacked airliner is not on that list of threats, Peterson said, because defending against that kind of attack requires assistance from other government agencies and the military.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, new and existing plants have been required to develop procedures to handle airplane attacks. NRC commissioner Gregory B. Jaczko told The New York Times for an article published Monday that those procedures were insufficient. He said the Dec. 8 letter is "the clearest acknowledgement so far" that the industry believes plant designers should incorporate lessons from previous terrorist attacks.

Click here to read The New York Times article.

"The industry acknowledges that action should be taken to prevent or mitigate certain...events including those resulting from large fires and explosions," the industry letter said.

The NRC, an independent government agency that regulates civilian use of nuclear materials, is currently rewriting two different sets of regulations — one for licensing new reactors and the other for security procedures at plants. Gary Holahan, an NRC official, said the security rules are at least nine months behind the new licensing procedures.

Peterson said the lag will hamper companies who want to apply to build new reactors.

"We want this done sooner rather than later," he said.