U.S. NRC Blog

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Be Aware, Take Action to Prepare

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

Be Disaster Aware, Take Action to PrepareSeptember is National Preparedness Month, a time each year to reflect on the importance of knowing what to do before, during and after an emergency. The first step in preparing is to know your hazard. Once you do, FEMA has a wealth of resources to help you plan.

If you live near a nuclear power plant, you probably know it has operated safely and securely for decades. You should still be prepared in the unlikely event of a plant emergency. The two most important things to know are:

1) if you hear a siren or alert, tune in for instructions from state or local officials, and

2) follow those instructions.

A key part of the NRC’s mission is to make sure adequate plans are in place to protect the health and safety of the public. We require plant operators to develop emergency preparedness plans and regularly practice carrying them out in emergency exercises that include first responders and local and other federal government agencies.

These exercises test the skills of those who would respond in a real emergency and identify any areas that need to be addressed. We assess the operators’ performance during exercises. As part of our regular inspections, we also make sure the operators’ emergency plans meet our requirements and are capable of protecting the public.

While the NRC holds to operator to account for their on-site performance, FEMA evaluates how well the offsite response organizations perform during exercises to ensure that they are meeting FEMA requirements.

If you live near an operating nuclear power plant, you should already know whether you work or reside in the “Emergency Planning Zone.” This information would come from your state or local government. You could also receive an annual mailing from the plant. The exact zones and their configurations depend on a number of factors, such as specific site conditions, population and local emergency response.

In the event of an emergency, the plant operator will be in close contact with state and local officials, including emergency responders. Local officials, not the NRC, will make decisions regarding the best course of action. These decisions will factor in technical information about the plant and the weather, as well as other details regarding local emergency plans. That is why it’s important to tune in to their instructions.

It is important to keep in mind that evacuation is not always the best course of action. Depending on your location, you may or may not be advised to take potassium iodide as a way to protect your thyroid. State and local officials are in the best position to make these decisions, so do not take action until you receive instruction from them.

If you want more information on emergency planning, see our website. For more information on National Preparedness Month, check out this website. And don’t forget that FEMA has set aside Sept. 30 for America’s PrepareAthon, an opportunity for everyone to prepare for specific hazards that might affect them.

The Latest Chapter in Diablo Canyon’s Seismic Saga

Lara Uselding
Public Affairs Officer, Region IV
 
Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer, HQ
 

Today, the NRC is looking over a 1,400-page report produced by the owners of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant for California state officials who had asked for new seismic information about the plant.

Specifically, Pacific Gas & Electric produced the report to meet part of a 2006 California law, California Assembly Bill 1632. PG&E shared the report with the NRC as they’re required to do as part of the plant’s existing long-term seismic research program.

diabloEarlier research examined the Shoreline fault, just offshore of Diablo Canyon. Both PG&E and the NRC had previously concluded, in 2009 and 2012, the fault could only generate a quake weaker than one from the Hosgri fault, which Diablo Canyon is designed to safely withstand.

For the new report, PG&E performed state-of-the-art surveys of faults near the plant, including the Shoreline fault. The new report’s more detailed information and updated analysis indicates the Shoreline fault is both longer than previously thought and able to produce a slightly stronger earthquake.

As part of its NRC requirements, PG&E must assess the report’s impact on plant operations. NRC Resident Inspectors and Region IV staff experts have already looked at PG&E’s assessment and so far the information provides confidence the plant can keep the public safe after a seismic event.

While PG&E’s new seismic information adds detail about the faults in the plant’s immediate vicinity, the company’s evaluation claims an earthquake generated by movement on the Shoreline fault would not be as energetic as previous studies say a Hosgri-generated earthquake would be.

Just as with the earlier Shoreline fault reports, the NRC will thoroughly review the new information through our existing oversight methods. The agency will take whatever action is appropriate if our review questions PG&E’s conclusions.

PG&E will also use this new information as it re-evaluates its overall seismic hazard as part of the NRC’s response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. PG&E’s re-evaluation is due to the NRC in March 2015. The NRC remains committed to integrating new information into our understanding of safety at all reactors.

Part II: Ensuring Safety in the First Temple of the Atom

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian
 

https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/digital/text/engineAs noted in Part I of this story on the NC State research reactor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was very anxious to promote the world’s first civilian reactor. But its enthusiasm was tempered by the challenge of placing a reactor safely on a busy college campus and developing an approval process for non-AEC reactors.

The AEC turned to its Reactor Safeguard Committee, the forerunner of today’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. The Committee was formed in 1947 to evaluate the safety of new reactors proposed by AEC laboratories and contractors.  “The committee was about as popular—and also necessary—as a traffic cop,” recalled Safeguard Committee Chairman Edward Teller.

The Committee’s most significant contribution was establishing a conservative approach to safety given the engineering uncertainty of that era. “We could not follow the usual method of trial and error,” Teller said. “The trials had to be on paper because the actual errors could be catastrophic.” The Committee developed a “simple procedure” of challenging a reactor designer to write a “hazard summary report” that imagined the worst “plausible mishap”—soon known as a “maximum credible accident”—and demonstrate the reactor design could prevent or mitigate it.

Five NC Stte physics professors designed the reactor. Here, in the reactor control room (left to right front row) are Clifford K. Beck and Arthur C. Menius, Jr. Standing is Newton Underwood, three unidentified students, Arthur Waltner and Raymond L. Murray.

Five NC State physics professors designed the reactor. Here, in the reactor control room, (left to right front row) are Clifford K. Beck and Arthur C. Menius, Jr. Standing is Newton Underwood, three unidentified students, Arthur Waltner and Raymond L. Murray.

The Committee focused on several hazards, including a surge in the chain reaction called a reactor “runaway,” a catastrophic release of radioactive material from fire, sabotage, or an earthquake, and hazards from routine operation that might result from leaks or inadvertent exposures. The Committee asked NC State to address these concerns in a “hazards summary report.”

To meet the Committee’s desire for inherent safety, NC State proposed a “water boiler” reactor, which was believed to have “student-proof” safety margin given its strongly “negative coefficient” of reactivity that limited greatly the possibility of a runaway. NC State also developed interlocks and an extremely dense concrete shielding to discouraged sabotage.

In order for NC State to commit the funds to such a long-term project, it needed an early approval. This created a dilemma since the college did not yet have a detailed, complete design.  The AEC used a two-step conditional approval that was similar to its later construction permit/operating license process. In step one, construction did not begin until NC State addressed the most important design safety issues. When it did, the AEC agreed by contract to supply enriched fuel. The fuel was not delivered, however, until NC State resolved all outstanding safety questions and a final inspection took place. With that, the first civilian reactor in history went critical in September 1953.

The AEC approach to safety at NC State foreshadowed many later regulatory practices. As important as the 1954 Atomic Energy Act is to current regulatory practice, it is interesting to see that many of the critical elements have even deeper roots back toward the beginning of the atomic era.

 

Part I — The First Temple of the Atom: The AEC and the North Carolina State Research Reactor

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

 

In January 1955, Newsweek reported, “It is the envy of thousands of scientists and hundreds of college presidents. It has made Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, an atomic mecca, attracting such disparate types as President Celal Beyar of Turkey, a band of junketing North Carolina peanut growers, some German school teachers, as well as a procession of industrialists from all over the world.”

https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/digital/text/engineAll had come to see the world’s first research reactor open for public view at North Carolina State College (NC State).

Proposed by NC State in 1950, the reactor was an audacious idea when the most basic information about the fission process was a Cold-War secret. Industry and universities were unwilling to pursue civilian applications of nuclear energy that required expensive security clearances.

Where others saw obstacles, Clifford Beck spied an opportunity. A physicist at NC State, Beck proposed to the Atomic Energy Commission the nation’s first nuclear engineering program built around a declassified reactor.

His timing was perfect. The announcement in September 1949 that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb tipped the debate within the AEC toward those who favored declassifying atomic secrets. Former AEC Chairman David Lilienthal called on the AEC to “free the atom” for U.S. industrial use.

AEC officials were elated with Beck’s proposal since it provided them with a concrete reason to declassify reactor information. They assured him they were “practically unanimous” that it would be approved. In late 1950, the AEC made public for the first time information on fission research and small research reactors, including the NC State reactor.

Taking advantage of its status as the world’s only public reactor, NC State included a viewing auditorium with thick water-shielded windows so the public could see nuclear energy was, as Beck claimed, “just another type of tool, not something mysterious and super-secret.” In the first year of operation, the reactor had more than 6,000 visitors who came to see a reactor that was “guarded by nothing more than a physics student with a guest book.” One intrigued journalist dubbed it “The First Temple of the Atom.”

NC State Observation Room

NC State Observation Room

Ending secrecy cleared only the first hurdle for NC State. The AEC had to confront difficult safety and security questions.

In 1950, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act strictly limited uses of fissionable material. How could the agency provide bomb-grade fuel to a civilian reactor? How could it prevent sabotage of an unguarded reactor? How could the AEC ensure safe operation on a densely populated college campus? And who in the AEC should approve the reactor?  In answering these questions, the agency foreshadowed many of the later practices it followed in licensing nuclear power reactors. We will turn to that story on Wednesday.

“Continued Storage” – What It Means and What it Doesn’t

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

 

There has been some confusion in media reports about the purpose of the NRC’s new rule on continued storage of spent nuclear fuel. The rule, approved by the Commission August 26, will be published soon in the Federal Register and take effect 30 days later.

The continued storage rule specifically deals with the period of time after the reactor has ceased operating. The rule adopts the NRC staff’s assessments of the environmental effects of storing spent nuclear fuel at a reactor site for various periods of time following the reactor’s licensed life for operation. It adopts the conclusions of the agency’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on the Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, also approved August 26 by the Commission.

drystoragegraphic)For each new reactor, license renewal application, and storage facility specific license or renewal, the NRC performs a thorough safety review of reactor operations and spent nuclear fuel management at the site. Separately, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the NRC to perform an environmental analysis of each licensing action, which considers impacts on the surrounding environment.

The continued storage rule, when implemented, will allow the NRC to process license applications and renewals for nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage facilities without assessing the portion attributed to the environmental impacts of continued storage. This is because such impacts have now been generically assessed by the NRC in the GEIS.

The GEIS analyzed three scenarios:

  • A geologic repository for disposing of spent fuel becomes available 60 years following the licensed life of a reactor (short-term storage);
  • A repository becomes available 100 years beyond the short-term scenario, or 160 years after the licensed life of a reactor (long-term storage); and
  • A repository never is available (indefinite storage).

In evaluating the third scenario, the GEIS assumed that licensee control and regulatory oversight, or “institutional controls,” will remain in place to ensure the safety and security of the waste as long as needed.

The short-term and long-term scenarios reflect current U.S. policy that spent nuclear fuel will be disposed of in a deep geologic repository. The indefinite storage scenario is included because the Appeals Court that struck down the earlier version of the rule directed the NRC to consider the possibility a repository may never be built.

The rule is not a safety decision or licensing action for any site; it does not authorize the initial or continued operation of any nuclear power plant, and it does not authorize storage of spent fuel. The NRC licenses spent fuel storage through other means: Spent fuel pools are covered by a plant’s operating license, and dry cask storage is permitted either through a general license or a separate license, with licenses or certificates for casks issued for up to 40 years.

Media headlines proclaiming that nuclear waste will be stored in place indefinitely under this rule, or that safety controls on spent fuel storage will be weakened, do not accurately reflect the rule’s purpose or effect. Ultimate responsibility for the disposition of spent fuel lies with Congress and the Department of Energy. DOE’s most recently stated goal is to have a repository available by 2048. The NRC is committed to ensuring that spent fuel remains safe and secure, wherever it is stored or disposed.

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