Future nuclear power plants should include design improvements to better protect against a terrorist attack by large aircraft, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Tuesday.

The chairman, Dale Klein, said the commission soon will give guidance to reactor manufacturers on "what we believe the reactors should be designed to withstand," including the possibility of a terrorist crashing a plane into the reactor.

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"It is likely that we will ask the vendors to consider that in a different way than we did in the previous plants," said Klein in an Associated Press interview in his office at NRC headquarters in suburban Rockville, Md.

Klein, who became the commission's chairman last June, said it was incorrect to suggest that the NRC will not require design improvements to guard against an airborne terrorist attack.

The 103 reactors now in use were designed under regulations that did not require consideration of a direct hit by an aircraft. The nuclear industry maintains that protection against such an attack is a government matter and not one reactor operators should be responsible for as part of their security. While the industry says tests show current reactors can withstand such a direct hit, others have raised doubts.

Klein said the NRC will likely want future reactor designs to take such a possibility into account.

"These new plants have the opportunity to reduce the (deterrent) actions" that will be required as part of plant operations "by increased design requirements," Klein said. "The new reactors in all likelihood will be more robust than the existing fleet."

The NRC is gearing up for a rush of applications for new power reactors, the first such applications since the 1970s before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Klein said four or five firm applications for new reactors are expected to be received this year with another eight likely in 2008. Most, if not all, of the new reactors are expected to be built on the sites of existing nuclear power plants.

In the interview, Klein expressed concern that the NRC won't be able to handle the license requests promptly unless Congress increases funding. The NRC, like other agencies, has not received a new budget and will run $95 million, or 12 percent, short. "It will slow (the licensing) down," said Klein, because there won't be money to train licensing specialists.

On other matters, Klein:

—Said the NRC is ready and in "a watch-and-see mode" when it comes to the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. He noted there have been several "false starts" in the Energy Department's push to complete a license application.

—Expressed confidence that reactor waste can continue to be stored at nuclear plant sites in water pools and dry-cask storage, which are both regulated by the NRC.

—Said that the new, streamlined licensing process for new power reactors — now about 42 months — should be shortened even more, at least after the initial group of licenses. It can be done "with no compromise on safety," he said.

—Expects that Congress will require NRC approval for licenses for proposed reprocessing facilities under the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Program. "In today's world, it's not likely the DOE will self-regulate like it has in the past," Klein said.

He said the NRC is on the fence when it comes to reprocessing nuclear fuel, the centerpiece of the Bush administration's vision of an expanded nuclear industry.

"As a regulator, we will evaluate whatever proposal comes at us, but we are not promoting recycling nor are we discouraging it," Klein said.

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