U.S. NRC Blog

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Lining Up New Protections with New Flood Info

Lauren K. Gibson
Project Manager
Japan Lessons Learned Division

Walkdowns (3)The NRC is moving forward on connecting two important lessons we learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan: protecting key safety functions and reevaluating flood hazards. The agency’s ongoing work would require U.S. nuclear power plants to ensure their protection strategies account for updated flood levels.

The Commission has approved the staff’s plan for completing the reevaluated flooding hazards review. The staff’s plan also covers how U.S. plants must account for the new hazards in their mitigation strategies for beyond-design-basis events. The plan requires U.S. plants to determine which flood hazard data could affect their strategies. We believe this approach is the quickest way to provide the most significant flood protection improvements.

The NRC assesses plants’ re-evaluated flood hazards to see whether the re-evaluated hazards were properly calculated. Plants need these assessments to evaluate their strategies against the re-evaluated hazard. We’re still reviewing some plants’ work; we’re issuing interim letters so those plants know how to follow the rest of the staff’s plan.

The plants examine whether their strategies work under the new hazard conditions and make any appropriate adjustments. For example, a strategy might require a pump in a location submerged by the new possible flood level. The plant would then consider options such as relocating the pump. These assessments and adjustments would be substantially complete by 2016.

The second part of completing the flooding hazard work involves either a focused evaluation or a broader integrated assessment of the plant’s protection capabilities. The specific work depends on:

  1. Which hazards, if any, cause flood levels higher than the plant’s original level.
  2. Whether the plant’s flood protections have available physical margin. (For example, if the new flood hazard level is six feet and a plant’s existing wall is seven feet tall, the wall has available physical margin to handle the new flood level.)
  3. Whether the higher flooding levels disable the plant’s ability to cool the reactor core or spent fuel pool, or protect containment.

If the local intense precipitation hazard is the only cause of a higher level, then the plant performs a focused evaluation. If other flooding hazards are involved, but the plant has available physical margin and can maintain safety functions, then the plant only needs a focused evaluation. The focused evaluation would identify any physical or procedure changes needed to address the new flood level. We would review and inspect these changes to ensure they resolve the issue.

The remaining plants would perform an integrated assessment, looking at all flooding hazards and identifying any changes needed to protect the plant from the new hazard. We’ll review these assessments and decide if voluntary plant actions would be effective or if the NRC must order plant changes.

You can find out more information about Recommendation 2.1—Flooding on the Japan Lessons Learned portion of the NRC website.

UPDATE: Reducing Proliferation Risks AND Treating the Sick

Steve Lynch
Project Manager
Research and Test Reactor Licensing Branch

The United States does not produce a medical isotope used domestically in millions of diagnostic procedures each year. We’re talking about technicium-99m, or Tc‑99m — which has been called the world’s most important medical isotope.

Tc-99m is created from another radioisotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which, in some cases, is produced  using highly enriched uranium. A supply shortage that delayed patient treatments several years ago, coupled with the desire to reduce proliferation risks, prompted the world community to find better ways of securing the future supply of this isotope.

In 2012, Congress passed the American Medical Isotope Production Act to support private U.S. efforts to develop non-HEU methods for medical isotope production and begin phasing out the export of HEU. The National Nuclear Security Administration has been promoting domestic Mo‑99 production using different technologies through formal cooperative agreements with commercial partners.

These partners and several other companies have said they are interested in producing Mo‑99 in the U.S. They have proposed using several different technologies, ranging from non-power reactors to accelerator-driven, subcritical solution tanks. To support the transition to new technologies, the NRC is prepared to receive and review applications for construction permits, operating licenses, and materials licenses for new facilities, as well as license amendments for existing non-power reactors.

In fact, we are now reviewing two construction permit applications and a license amendment request. We licensed a small-scale technology demonstration project earlier this year.

Companies, facilities, and technicians involved in producing and administering Tc-99m to patients may also need to be licensed by either the NRC or an Agreement State. (There are 37 Agreement States, which have formal agreements with the NRC allowing them to regulate certain nuclear materials, including medical isotopes.)

For more information on the role of the NRC and other agencies in regulating the use and production of medical isotopes and other nuclear materials, visit the NRC webpage.

Kara Mattioli also contributed to this post.

This is an update to the original blog post, which originally ran in October 2013

A Decommissioning of a Different Sort: NRC Resident Inspector Office at Vermont Yankee Shuts Down

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

VYResidentOfficeClose 7-2015Something happened last week at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that might not merit headline news but is nonetheless worth highlighting: The lights were turned off for the last time in the NRC’s Resident Inspector office at the site.

As is well known by now, Vermont Yankee permanently ceased operations last December, bringing to a halt power production that had begun in November 1972. Since 1978, when the Resident Inspector program was launched, the NRC has had two such inspectors assigned to the site.

Among other things, these inspectors have kept close watch on day-to-day activities, responded to events, performed inspections and reviews and served as a vital conduit of information to the NRC. But commensurate with the reduced safety risk associated with a permanently shutdown reactor, the NRC has ended its daily inspector presence.

The NRC had kept a Resident Inspector at the Vernon, Vt., site to allow us to maintain on-site scrutiny during the early stages of the transition from an operating plant to one entering decommissioning. (Vermont Yankee will be using the SAFSTOR approach, which will involve placing the unit in storage for many years before embarking on major decontamination and dismantlement work.)

Although the Resident Inspector office has closed, NRC’s review activities have not come to a halt. Rather, the agency will continue to perform inspections at the plant on a periodic and targeted basis.

For instance, whenever there is major work taking place, such as the demolition of a nuclear-related building or the removal of spent fuel stored in the plant’s spent fuel pool into dry casks, an NRC inspector will be present. In addition, NRC will conduct inspections at the site at regular intervals to check on the plant’s safety status and any key developments until all spent fuel has been removed from the site and the plant’s NRC license is terminated.

Anyone seeking to contact the NRC regarding Vermont Yankee can continue to do so by calling the agency’s Region I Office via its toll-free phone number at 1-800-432-1156 and asking for the Division of Nuclear Materials Safety or by e-mail at OPA1@NRC.GOV .

Vermont Yankee is not unique with respect to this change involving the Resident Inspectors assigned to the plant. Three other plants that have shut down in recent years have also seen this changeover.

Putting Crisis Communication Plans to the Test

jicPublic Affairs staffers Roger Hannah, Stephanie West and Joey Ledford work together in the Joint Information Center during the national level exercise dubbed Southern Exposure 2015. It included dozens of federal, state and local agencies working together under a scenario of a simulated nuclear power plant accident in South Carolina. For the full story, go here.

Safeguarding The Nation’s Secrets

Robert L. Norman
Sr. Program Manager, Safeguards Information

sgiAs part of its role in protecting health and safety, the NRC uses information security procedures to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. The NRC puts sensitive information in three categories: classified, Safeguards Information (SGI), and Sensitive Unclassified Non-Safeguards Information (SUNSI).

Each category has specific marking requirements and security procedures. Although the NRC is the only agency with the authority to set requirements for protecting SGI, most agencies have requirements for the protection and designation of unclassified sensitive information.

You’ve probably heard the terms Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential; these are categories of classified information. Each category has a corresponding federal security clearance level needed for access. Executive Orders, Security Classification Guides and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, lay out criteria for protecting information and identifying what nuclear information is classified at a particular level. A breach of classified information could threaten national security.

SUNSI, while generally unavailable to the public, does not require a federal security clearance. This category of information contains various types of information, including Personally Identifiable Information and attorney-client privilege. SUNSI is protected by the Privacy Act, NRC and other federal agency regulations.

While classified information and SUNSI are broad categories, SGI is much narrower. The SGI designation covers the physical protection of nuclear facilities and materials. This includes operating reactors, spent fuel shipments, and radioactive material at certain levels. Nuclear facilities require high security measures. Armed guards, physical barriers, and surveillance systems are just some of the ways we protect nuclear plants. Information about these detailed security measures is carefully guarded. Without SGI protection, people could use this information to attempt to circumvent physical barriers and break into security systems.

sgiSection 147 of the Atomic Energy Act requires the NRC to regulate SGI. The NRC is in charge of deciding what qualifies as SGI and how to protect it. A specially trained group of personnel, called SGI Designators, create and/or check documents for SGI. Even though a federal security clearance isn’t needed for access, SGI is treated similarly to Confidential information. Individuals must pass a background check and have a “need to know” to access SGI.

The use of SGI has often come into question. The Office of the Inspector General conducted an audit in 2004 of the NRC’s protection of SGI. According to the audit, the Confidential classification could protect SGI without seriously affecting costs. However, NRC staff concluded the proposal would require the government to perform thousands of expensive federal security clearances and change how information is stored and encrypted. A switch to a lower designation, such as standard official use only, would put security at risk. Current regulations already protect SGI without breaking the bank.

Another OIG audit revisited the topic in 2012. This audit discussed giving people outside of the NRC and its licensees access to SGI. The OIG recommended setting up a specific plan for granting outsider access. Based on the recommendations, outsiders will still need to undergo background checks and have a “need to know.”

The NRC strives to be as open and transparent as possible. However, when it comes to safeguarding sensitive information for the good of the country, and our licensees, information protection will always take priority over transparency.

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