MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States is gearing up to build a new generation of nuclear power plants but will probably have to import many of the component parts for them, the nation's top nuclear regulator said on Tuesday.
Nils Diaz, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said America has the nuclear fuel but no longer has the production facilities to build the components for nuclear reactors.
"I think when old nuclear power plants were built, I think the majority of the components were built in this country," Diaz told journalists in Miami. "We had large fabrication facilities for pressure vessels and steam generators and major components and most of those things no longer exist in this country."
The United States has not ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s. The last one to start up, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar reactor, came on line in 1996 after 23 years of construction delays.
President George W. Bush has proposed jump-starting construction of new nuclear power plants as part of a way to make the United States less dependent on foreign energy sources. His plan would include federal risk insurance for companies wanting to build new nuclear plants, to mitigate the cost of delays due to any potential failures in the licensing process.
Diaz estimate the cost of building a new 1,100- to 1,200- megawatt nuclear plant at $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion and expects to receive five or six applications for nuclear plant construction and operating licenses between 2007 and 2009.
If a new streamlined licensing program works as hoped, the first of those could be approved within two to three years and built within three years after that.
"We're looking at 2012, 2013 to come on line," Diaz said.
Many components for those plants will be imported from nations such as France that have aggressively built new plants for years and already supply replacement parts for existing U.S. nuclear facilities, he said.
China and India are also embarking on new rounds of nuclear plant construction, which could create a significant demand for large reactor parts, Diaz said.
"So we're gearing up for a real ... global nuclear marketplace where components to be built in Japan or in Sweden or in France or in Italy or in China or in any place," Diaz said.
Developed nations have already begun discussions under the auspices of the G-8 to find ways to regulate that trade to assure quality and supply, Diaz said. Meetings of senior regulators will be held in Paris in June, he said.
Public concern about the safety of nuclear power is one reason the United States has not built a new nuclear plant in so long. Diaz is convinced those concerns have been adequately addressed since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant virtually froze the U.S. nuclear industry.
But the first generation of new U.S. reactors will be built at existing nuclear plants, rather than at new sites, in part because the neighbors are already used to living near a nuclear plant, Diaz said.