CORVALLIS, Ore. - Unique "passive safety" systems that may hold the key to the future of nuclear energy have passed some of their first tests with flying colors in a new facility at Oregon State University.

The $8 million, three-year testing program is attracting interest around the world. Preliminary results are complete and have been submitted to Westinghouse Electric Corp., the designer of this new type of nuclear reactor.

Work to confirm those results with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is continuing, and some of the first scientific presentations and publications about this project will be made soon, researchers say.

"The results have been even better than we expected," said Jose Reyes, a professor of nuclear engineering at OSU and program manager of tests being done at this $6 million facility, which was completed in 1994.

In an OSU laboratory, a one-fourth scale model of the Westinghouse AP600 reactor design has dozens of sophisticated monitors and more than 750 instruments. It is the leading facility in the world to test long-term cooling in a passive safety system for nuclear reactors, Reyes said.

For many months it has been creating problems, on purpose. Pipes break, valves malfunction, the power goes off. Researchers want to know what will happen when pretty much everything goes wrong that can go wrong.

The answer so far: not much.

"The whole concept of passive safety is that the reactor cools down by itself when emergencies occur, using natural forces such as gravity, and working without human intervention, pumps or even electric power," Reyes said.

"So far that's exactly what we've seen with this design. The core of the reactor has remained covered with water at all times, for all the design basis accidents we can simulate."

Tests done at the new facility will even increase in their severity in coming months - in scenarios called "beyond design basis" - which Reyes says include multiple, unrealistic failures that stretch the bounds of credulity.

The new facility has also proved to be a gold mine for educating OSU nuclear engineering students with cutting edge technology of the future, he said. More than 25 undergraduate and eight graduate students have participated in design and research projects.

The stage is now being set, Reyes said, for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to finish their own tests, issue a safety evaluation report, hold public hearings and eventually grant final design approval to this new reactor concept.

"Passive safety designs such as this are clearly where countries all over the world are moving with nuclear energy," Reyes said. "Korea, China, Japan, Germany and France are all very interested. Our project has already generated inquiries from eight foreign utilities and 16 companies in the U.S."

Although new development of nuclear power plants has been stalled in the U.S. for almost two decades due to concerns about safety, waste disposal and cost, other countries around the world are moving steadily past those obstacles, Reyes said. They have thriving nuclear power industries.

"France sees nuclear power as a key to their energy independence," Reyes said. "Japan is going full speed ahead. And several countries are recycling their spent nuclear fuel so they have very little waste to dispose of."

And the new design being developed by Westinghouse, Reyes said, addresses itself not only to safety but to cost. It's small, simple, standardized, and has a modular design to be built in pieces in a factory. That allows higher quality control at lower cost and speeds construction. Officials estimate it will be competitive in cost with coal-fired electric power plants.

Tests should continue at the OSU facility for at least the next five to seven years, Reyes said.

He was the keynote speaker last year at a scientific conference in Japan to outline the construction of the new facility, its capabilities and early research.

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Jose Reyes, 541-737-7065