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Safe Reactor Is Ultimate Goal

October 07, 1986|GREG JOHNSON

Neal Blue seems confident that GA Technologies' ongoing nuclear research will lead to the development of a cost-effective and extremely safe gas-cooled reactor.

But before GA Technologies can start ringing up sales, a San Diego-based consortium of utilities and equipment manufacturers must first win a "horse race" for $400 million in U.S. government backing that is needed to build an $800-million demonstration project.

Congress, which in the past has approved limited funding for research into gas-cooled reactor research, also has provided funding for a pair of liquid metal reactors. It also has supported research into an advanced version of the light-water reactor technology that provides the nuclear power at all but one of the nation's commercial reactors.

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Congress will fund the one technology that seems most likely to power the nation's second generation of nuclear plants.

The race for federal funding appears to be too close to call.

"We're riding this horse to win, but the lead could change five times" before the funding race is decided, said Dan Mears, general manager of the Sorrento Valley-based Gas Cooled Reactor Associates (GCRA), an industry group that since 1978 has championed construction of the demonstration project.

If the high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor being proposed by GCRA fails to draw federal support, research would be set back by at least 10 years, according to industry observers.

Blue believes GA Technologies' "super safe" and cost-effective reactor technology will win federal backing and that resulting commercial plants will pop up in the United States and overseas.

GA Technologies' only commercial reactor based on the high-temperature, gas-cooled technology is the Fort St. Vrain plant near Denver, owned by a Colorado utility. The plant has operated only 25% of the time since it went on line in 1979, according to a spokesman for the Public Service Co. of Colorado. The company said last month that it will spend $75 million in shareholders' equity to cover costs incurred by the troubled plant.

Technological advances will ensure that the problems that plague Fort St. Vrain would not be repeated in the future, according to Blue.

However, even if GA Technologies' civilian nuclear reactor research fails to gain federal support, the company will continue to develop nuclear technology for military applications. GA Technologies has been bidding on contracts for the Navy and will bolster its efforts to obtain "Star Wars" contracts, Blue said.

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