U.S. NRC Blog

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El Nino and NRC Preparedness

F. Paul Peduzzi
Branch Chief
Division of Preparedness and Response

elninoEl Niño is already making itself felt along the West Coast. This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years. It warms sea surface temperatures in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean, shifting average sea level pressure and tropical rainfall in dramatic fashion, and leading to weather pattern changes over parts of the northern and southern hemispheres.

Forecasters expect this year’s El Niño to be one of the strongest ever, based on changes in the sea surface temperatures of the Pacific.

No two El Niño’s are exactly alike, but the pattern generally has these effects:

  • Increased rain and snow across California and the southern United States, with less in the Pacific Northwest and in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys
  • Milder than normal winter across the northern United States
  • More hurricanes than normal in the eastern Pacific and fewer in the Atlantic during hurricane season (June 1 – November 30)

The NRC is alert to potential impacts on our licensees. Facilities such as nuclear power plants are designed to withstand much more severe weather than El Niño typically brings. Nuclear power plants are designed and built to withstand the most severe weather and floods historically reported for their area. Several plants experienced strong El Niño weather patterns in the ‘80s and ‘90s with no major problems.

Following the Fukushima events in Japan in 2011, the plants have enhanced their ability to deal with major floods. For example, additional portable safety equipment, such as pumps and generators, is now available both onsite and offsite.

However, El Niño’s storms could block roadways, making it difficult for plant staff to get to the site and impeding public evacuation routes. Plant operators can use other transportation means to get staff and equipment to the site, if needed. And emergency plans have provisions to clear evacuation routes or use alternate routes. These provisions have been tested before, such as during the Missouri River flooding of 2011

The bottom line? California may be unusually soggy this winter, but the NRC does not expect the current El Niño to cause any safety issues for the nation’s nuclear power plants. As always, we remain vigilant and continue to work with other federal agencies on emergency preparedness and incident response, just in case.

NRC Finishes Review of Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Planning Report

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

More of a marathon than a sprint, the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant can in some cases take decades. But central to the successful completion of that process is careful planning and vigilant oversight.

vyIn December of 2014, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant embarked on that phase of its life after being permanently shut down. As required by the NRC, Entergy, the plant’s owner, submitted a Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, or PSDAR, on Dec. 19, 2014.

What exactly is a PSDAR? It is a report designed to provide the NRC and public with a general overview of the company’s proposed decommissioning activities. The report includes estimated costs for decommissioning and an affirmation that the decommissioning can be completed consistent with the site’s environmental statement.

Since the PSDAR only provides information and is not a federal action, it does not require NRC approval. However, the agency does review such submittals to confirm they meet regulatory requirements.

Besides performing an evaluation of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the decommissioning plans, the NRC staff also reviewed public comments regarding the report. Along those lines, the agency held a public meeting on Feb. 19, 2015, in Brattleboro, Vt., for the purpose of receiving comments. Those remarks and others submitted separately in writing were all considered as the report was being prepared.

The NRC staff has now completed its review of the report and has determined the planned decommissioning activities, schedules and other information described in it are consistent with the agency’s requirements in this area. A copy of the NRC’s letter to Entergy regarding the PSDAR review results will be made available in the agency’s electronic documents system, ADAMS.

Also on the topic of Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning, as of Feb. 1, 2016, the responsibility for Vermont Yankee has been transferred within the NRC from the office responsible for operating reactors to the office responsible for decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Going forward, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards’ Division of Decommissioning, Uranium Recovery and Waste Programs will oversee licensing activities involving Vermont Yankee.

The NRC will continue to perform inspections at Vermont Yankee, with the intention of being on-site anytime a major activity is taking place.

 

Crossing the Finish Line at Watts Bar

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

Watts Bar Unit 2, the nation’s first new commercial nuclear unit in a generation, received its NRC operating license last October and is closing in on its first nuclear chain reaction. (Power production is still a ways off.) The NRC is still on the job as the staff transitions to operational inspection duties.

An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.

An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The agency’s Region II-based construction inspection staff, supplemented by headquarters staff, have booked more than 127,000 hours making sure the new unit has been built according to its design specifications. More than 350 agency inspectors and other staff have been involved in the inspection and project management effort, which geared up in earnest in 2008 when the Tennessee Valley Authority committed to completing the unit it had initially started building in 1973 and later suspended.

The Watts Bar plant, located about 50 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tenn., has a unique history. Unit 1, which also traces its roots to 1973, was the last U.S. plant to come on line when it was finally licensed in 1996 after a similarly lengthy construction hiatus.

When work resumed on Unit 2, the NRC recalled a handful of staffers who had been involved in inspecting work on the sister unit to ensure “knowledge transfer.”

“Our goal is to verify the design is accurate,” said James Baptist, who was a team leader for several years during Watts Bar 2 construction and has recently become chief of the Region II branch overseeing the transition from construction to operation. “We want to ensure Unit 2 looks and operates just like Unit 1. It greatly assists the effort when you have a working model right beside you.”

As is the case with most NRC inspection efforts, the corps of construction resident inspectors led the way, reporting to the site daily and amassing a big percentage of those 127,000 hours.

“Everything came through the residents in terms of what was going on at the site,” said Chris Even, who recently transitioned from senior construction project manager to senior project inspector in the new branch overseeing the transition. “We always relied on the residents for knowing exactly what was going on.”

The workload was huge from the beginning, with more than 550 construction inspection items to be inspected and closed. And Baptist noted that even though the plant was designed in the 1970s, it’s built to today’s standards.

“They purposely built Unit 2 to be a mirror image of Unit 1 while including all the updated safety enhancements that have accrued over the last 25 or 30 years,” he said.

For example, Watts Bar is the first plant in the nation to comply with all the NRC’s post- Fukushima upgrades as well as the newest cybersecurity requirements.

One might think that with the license issued and the plant about to start up that the NRC inspection effort would be winding down. Baptist said that is not the case.

“We still have our foot on the gas,” he said.

Just as the NRC inspectors were dedicated to make sure Watts Bar Unit 2 was constructed and tested according to the design and NRC regulatory requirements, they will continue to maintain that vigilance as the plant begins and continues to operate.

 

 

Throwback Thursday – The Smithsonian Welcome Center and the NRC

welcome centerSeen here, under construction, is the now-open Welcome Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It is named for a previous NRC Chairman and his wife. Question: What is the name of the Chairman?

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Plainly Telling the Public about Our Environmental Reviews

Tomeka Terry, Project Manager
Office of New Reactors

The NRC feels it’s important to write our documents so that all readers can understand them. We’ve previously discussed writing in plain English and acronym use. The agency’s made extra effort to write plainly in its documents most read by the public, and to reduce the use of acronyms when we can.

We use many tools to inform the public about who we are and what we do. Our work is technical and some documents must meet legal standards, but we still want people to understand as much as possible. So we went a step further—creating a new tool to improve understanding and reduce reading effort.

Environmental impact statements help the NRC decide whether to approve projects, such as licensing the building and operating of a nuclear power plant. Each environmental impact statement for a new reactor will now include a “Reader’s Guide” with a simple, short overview of the statement. The Reader’s Guide summarizes the project’s potential environmental impacts. It also describes alternatives and ways to reduce the effects the project would have on the environment.

We’ve also included an overview of the NRC’s new reactor licensing process and opportunities for public participation in the Reader’s Guide.

The brochure format makes understanding the environmental impact statement easier. Most NRC environmental impact statements average 1500 pages, while the Reader’s Guide gives an overview in about 40 pages.

The Reader’s Guide also helps us conserve resources. When we send our documents to the public, we can now print a short document and include the full environmental impact statement on an enclosed CD.

Two recent Reader’s Guides cover a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed new reactor in Pennsylvania and a final environmental impact statement for a site in New Jersey.

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