Jose Reyes is responsible for OSU's safety tests of a next-generation Westinghouse reactor likely to be the first one commissioned in the United States since the accident in Pennsylvania.

CORVALLIS — Jose Reyes Jr. was working at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1979 when the nuclear core in a reactor at Three Mile Island partially melted down.

Reyes and four other members of a grand jury task force discovered plant operators were hit with multiple alarms in a complicated control room. "We set them up for failure," he says.

Three decades later, as head of Oregon State University's nuclear engineering program, Reyes is responsible for OSU's safety tests of a next-generation Westinghouse reactor likely to be the first one commissioned in the United States since the accident in Pennsylvania.

He's also chief technology officer for an OSU spinoff company in Corvallis, NuScale Power, that hopes to win NRC approval for a far smaller, simpler reactor than the Three Mile Island plant. Reyes, 54, hopes it will help spark a nuclear power renaissance.

"There have been huge advances in maintenance, operations and safety," Reyes says. "There's no carbon dioxide, no acid rain. Nuclear has a lot of advantages over coal-fired plants."

The Northwest has a humbling history with nuclear power, including the premature shutdown of Portland General Electric's Trojan plant and the abandonment of partially finished plants by the Washington Public Power Supply System, more commonly known as "Whoops."

The Obama Administration has dropped Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a long-term storage site, meaning waste will continue to be stored at the plants. Under a ballot measure approved in 1980, Oregon voters would have to approve any new nuclear plant in the state.

But WPPSS successor, Energy Northwest, is studying adding more nuclear power after 2020 and likes NuScale's approach.

Some environmentalists — and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire — see nuclear power as a low-carbon way to battle global warming and provide reliable power.

And the Obama Administration recently announced federal loan guarantees for building two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Georgia, putting nuclear power on a faster, more bipartisan track.

Thanks in part to Reyes, Oregon State is well positioned to benefit if nuclear power surges. After he arrived in 1987, Reyes parlayed a $4,000 grant into building a small-scale model of the Trojan plant for testing.

Westinghouse got interested, and funded construction of a quarter-scale model of its planned new reactor at OSU. Reyes, who regulated safety at the NRC and serves as a safety expert for the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, oversaw about 100 comprehensive safety tests on the reactor.

The college has a small, 1 megawatt nuclear reactor. But the model that Reyes works on uses electrical coils that heat water up to 420 degrees.

NRC testing protocols require simulating hundreds of breaks through the system — stuck valves, burst pipes, steaming leaks — then evaluating how the reactor responds with 750 sensors measuring pressure, temperature and liquid levels.

The Westinghouse reactors are designed for "passive safety," using water tanks and gravity to circulate water to cool the reactor core, not pumps and valves subject to breaking and useless in a power failure.

To be certified, the plant has to be able to cool itself without operator intervention for three days after a malfunction.

"We'll open a valve to make a two-inch break in the pipe, then we just sit back and watch the safety system run," Reyes says. "It's a reality check."

Reyes grew up in New Jersey and Florida, when enthusiasm was sky high for scientific progress, science fiction novels and Apollo moon launches. He was a basement science lab kind of kid, he says: "Anything that made noise or exploded was of interest."

His father, a 30-year Navy veteran, took him to Cape Canaveral to watch rocket launches. On the viewing platform, Reyes says, he could feel the heat.

Besides the passion, Reyes has the patience needed in the nuclear power industry: He got his master's and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Maryland by taking one class a term over 7 years while working at the NRC.

He started working on what would become the NuScale reactor in 2000. The first design came out in 2003, along with a one-third scale model at OSU. In 2007, OSU transferred the technology to NuScale in exchange for an equity stake.

On the outside, the NuScale plant looks like a huge — 65-foot by 15-foot — stainless steel pellet. That's the "containment vessel." Inside that vessel sits a second, smaller pellet: a 45-foot by 9-foot steel "reactor vessel." Inside that sits the uranium fuel and steam generator.

The whole unit floats underground on hangers in a lined pit filled with water, a blueprint that Reyes says is far more flexible in an earthquake: "Ours is definitely a West Coast design," he says.

Cooling water moves by convection inside the reactor vessel — rising as the uranium fuel heats it, transferring that heat to water that fuels steam generators, then falling as it cools back to the uranium rods at the bottom.

There are small pumps for water fueling the generators. If they fail, the pool of water in the pit acts as a passive safety system.

For conventional nuclear plants, regulators estimate the frequency of a complete reactor meltdown at about once every 1 million years. The NuScale reactor's odds are once every 100 million years, Reyes says.

Among the skeptics is Lloyd Marbet, an Oregon activist who helped lead the drive to close Trojan. Conservation and renewables are the way to target climate change, he says.

Nuclear plants are risky and expensive, Marbet says, requiring big taxpayer subsidies to get built. They're prime terrorist targets. And waste disposal problems are far from resolved.

"If they're so safe, why do we need to subsidize them?" Marbet says. "Wherever you've got a human hand, you've got the potential for human error."

NuScale has impressed industry observers and drawn venture capital funding.

Duncan Williams, a Washington, D.C., patent attorney and former Navy nuclear reactor control officer, predicted NuScale's relatively seamless design would win NRC approval in a column for

"If a reactor vessel is going to fail, it's going to be where there's a weld or something that's connected to the reactor vessel," Williams said in an interview. "What's impressive is that NuScale has all its components inside the reactor vessel itself."

Jack Baker, an Energy Northwest's vice president, said the consortium is evaluating compact designs from NuScale and from Babcock and Wilcox for potential installation after 2020.

NuScale's units generate 45 megawatts apiece, about 25 times less than a conventional nuclear plant. That lets utilities add power in increments.

Unlike larger plants, numerous U.S. manufacturers could build the simpler design. "This technology is a great opportunity for regional and U.S. jobs," Baker wrote in an e-mail.

At NuScale, Reyes works with 35 other engineers. The company hopes to file for NRC design certification by 2012 and build a plant by 2018.