Editor's Note: This is part of the IEEE Spectrum special report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.
Q: Can the nuclear industry regain the public trust after the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident?
A: Our June 2011 survey found that support from people who live closest to U.S. reactors is still very strong: Eighty percent favor the use of nuclear energy. These people typically have a stronger knowledge base, and the trend we've always seen in our industry is that the more people know about nuclear energy, the more they support it.
The polling data show that we have lost some support for nuclear power, but it hasn't gone to the opposition—it's gone to neutral. Many people are doing a reassessment of nuclear energy. So the industry has to be as forthcoming and transparent as possible in providing information that will help people with that assessment.
Q: Are sweeping new regulations required to keep nuclear plants safe?
A: The more urgent need is for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to strictly enforce existing safety regulations. Two examples are rules governing fire protection and releases of radioactively contaminated liquids. The NRC has a list of 47 nuclear power reactors in the United States that do not meet fire protection regulations. The agency doesn't care. The NRC has a list of even more nuclear power reactors that have illegally leaked radioactively contaminated liquids. The agency has done nothing about it. The NRC cannot watch plant owners limbo beneath its safety bar until Americans die. The NRC must enforce regulations now to prevent that future disaster.
Q: What are nuclear regulators' top priorities following Fukushima?
A: We're focusing on things we can do in the near term to make physical improvements at the plants. We're likely to upgrade seismic and flood protections. And there may also be new requirements in response to the issue that was at the heart of what happened at Fukushima: There was a very long time period without any on-site or off-site electrical power. You need to have an electrical power system that's designed to withstand a very large event caused by natural forces. All U.S. plants are now capable of operating between 4 and 8 hours without any off-site power supply, but we want to be sure they're capable of operating for much longer periods of time.
Q: If governments demand safety upgrades for new nuclear plants, will utilities still find it economically viable to build them?
A: I don't think regulatory requirements are going to have an impact on new nuclear construction—I think it depends more on the price of natural gas. A lot of utilities that were eager to enter the nuclear field five years ago are now looking at natural gas prices and asking, "Is nuclear the right way to go at this point in time?" Those decisions really depend on the economics around other alternatives for generating power.
—Martin Virgilio, deputy executive director for reactor preparedness programs at the NRC