U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Keeping U.S. Reactors Safe from Power Pulses

The NRC requires U.S. nuclear power plants to be able to shut down safely in the face of many extreme events – tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes. But the NRC also takes into account far more unusual events, like solar flares and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a certain type of nuclear weapon. Both can affect generators, transformers and other parts of the electric grid – which in turn could affect nuclear power plants.

The NRC has been examining these issues for more than 30 years, starting in the late 1970s when the agency studied how EMP could affect nuclear power plant safe-shutdown systems. In February 1983 the NRC issued the study’s conclusion: nuclear power plants’ safety systems can do their jobs after an EMP event. The agency revisited the issue in 2007 to account for the increasing use of digital computer systems in nuclear plants, which potentially could be more susceptible to EMP. The agency continued to conclude as recently as two years ago that nuclear power plants can safely shut down following an EMP event.

The NRC has also examined potential “solar storms” and their potential to damage the electric grid. A strong geomagnetic storm on March 13, 1989, for example, severely disrupted electrical power equipment in Canada, Scandinavia, and the United States. After studying the event the NRC issued an Information Notice in June 1990, to ensure nuclear power plants understood how severe solar activity could affect transmission systems and other components of the power grid. Additional research in 2010 analyzed and compared solar or geomagnetically-induced current events to those of the EMP events previously analyzed. This work led to the same conclusion as the EMP studies – U.S. nuclear power plants can safely shut down if a solar storm disrupts the grid.

The edge of the NRC’s authority lies in a nuclear power plant’s electric switchyard, where our rules mesh with those of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s electric grids. Another body, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) develops and enforces grid reliability standards. The NRC works closely with FERC and NERC on grid reliability issues, including the effects of solar or geomagnetic storms and EMP.

Earlier this year a citizen petitioned the NRC to revisit the issue of grid disruption, this time focusing on the spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear power plants. The petition calls for a new rule that would require nuclear power plant spent fuel pools to have emergency systems capable of functioning for two years in the absence of an operating electric grid. The NRC is currently analyzing dozens of public comments on the petition, and the agency expects to issue a decision on the petition in the middle of next year.

If you’re interested in more details, look at the letter the NRC sent Congress last month.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service

Are you a customer of the NRC? We frequently interact with licensees, industry groups, other federal agencies, states and the general public. Some of these groups (licensees for example) do not fit the traditional definition of a “customer.”

Nonetheless, consistent with the basic intent of Executive Order (EO) 13571, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service,” dated April 27, 2011, and subsequent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the NRC has developed a Customer Service Plan.

The plan, posted at our website this week, describes several initiatives we’ve undertaken to streamline our interactions and transactions with key stakeholder groups. In particular, we are focusing on enhancing licensing operations and critical interactions with licensees, and public access to regulatory documents.

As part of its guidance, OMB asked each agency to include in its plan three to five key customer service areas and to include a “signature initiative” demonstrating the use of technology to improve the customer experience.

The NRC chose online licensing for radioactive material license applications as its signature initiative. Under this initiative, our web-based licensing system will provide an online platform for individuals and organizations to apply for a new license, renew a license, or amend an existing license for the use of radioactive materials. It will also provide an opportunity for Agreement States to use the same licensing platform.

Additionally, the system will provide a current, nationwide repository for official radioactive materials licenses that will provide an authoritative source that federal and state regulatory agencies can use to verify the validity of a license.

Our plan also

• Streamlines the process for criminal history background checks

• Increases public engagement through improved information access using quick response codes and smartphone technology.

• Makes it easier for hearing participants to use our electronic hearing docket (through which the NRC provides access to docket materials related to High Level Waste and Reactors, Materials, and Other Hearings).

• Improves customer service with a new Web-based tool to solicit customer feedback about the NRC Public Document Room.

We hope you’ll take the time to read out plan. We welcome your comments on our planned initiatives and any other ideas you may have for streamlining and improving the way we interact with our stakeholders.

Francine F. Goldberg
Co-Chair, Open Government Advisory Group

On the Road With the Regulators

Last week the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) held its 21st annual convention in Miami which, for the first time in a couple of years, included a day-trip with a nuclear focus.

The trip started with a visit to a National Park Service solar project on an island at the outer reaches of the Biscayne National Park. Two houses on Adams Key operate entirely with solar power, though, like nuclear plants, there is a backup diesel generator as a backstop. (Reactors generally have two or more units each the size of a locomotive.)

The boat to Adams Key, which has its own interesting history, went past the Turkey Point power plant where a Florida firm operates two reactors. Several years ago the NRC issued a 20-year extension to the original 40-year licenses, and the company wants to put two more reactors on the site. In addition, the firm has asked the NRC for permission to get a bit more power out of the two existing reactors. The site also has three non-nuclear units.

Senior NRC official Jack Grobe, most recently a member of the team of NRC veterans who developed recommendations to enhance reactor safety in this country after the Fukushima accident, and myself, accompanied about 40 environmental journalists on the day trip. It was our job to provide information about NRC activities, and later Jack participated in a panel discussion on nuclear issues.

Reaching out to journalists and editorial writers, and by extension their audiences, is one of the ways the NRC works to inform the public about what it does. Our message was short and simple – we have one job, and that is to protect people and the environment.

On a bus between tour stops, I offered a summary of “who we are and what we do,” and Jack and I took questions – no small feat while standing at the front of a bouncing bus. With one hand on a support and the other holding a microphone, it was a bit like surfing and trying to carry on a conversation. Jack took the question about the work of the NRC inspectors assigned to each of the 104 reactors in this country. As deputy director of the NRC office that oversees the cadre of highly trained experts with that job, he provided a look at the areas of inspection, inspection cycles and what we do if an inspector spots something unusual.

The subsequent roundtable discussion got a tad esoteric and delved into some very nuanced issues. It was there that Jack described the NRC Fukushima recommendations, which had been endorsed as an action plan for the agency in an announcement just hours before he spoke.

The bus ride question and answer session was fun for us and hopefully educational for reporters and editors, and at the roundtable it as interesting to hear so many different perspectives in one place at one time. Thanks to the SEJ for the opportunity.

Eliot Brenner
Public Affairs Director

There Are No Cracks in Davis-Besse’s Containment

The NRC was informed by FirstEnergy on October 10 that it had identified what looked like a crack in the concrete shield building of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The plant had been shut down and workers were starting to cut a hole in the side of the building in order to move and replace the reactor head when they found the crack. The shield building is made of about three feet of concrete reinforced with two to three-inch steel rods.

It’s important to emphasize that the shield building at Davis-Besse is not the reactor containment vessel. That vessel is made of one-inch thick welded steel and sits inside of the shield building separated by about four and a half feet of hollow space. The shield building’s primary function is to protect the containment building against external hazards. The steel vessel is designed to keep the radiation inside the reactor from reaching the environment.

Because the plant is currently shut down there is no threat to public health and safety. Furthermore, this issue did not meet the NRC’s reporting requirements because it did not constitute an immediate safety concern.

Nevertheless, the NRC immediately sent a concrete material expert to the plant. In addition, there were already two resident inspectors and specialists from the Region III office in Lisle, Ill., on the site monitoring the reactor head replacement activities. They are now also conducting an independent assessment of this new issue and are reviewing the utility’s efforts to understand the issue and any potential safety significance. If there are any challenges identified with the design function of the shield building the NRC will expect the utility to resolve them before restarting.

Comparisons have been made between the cracks found at Davis-Besse and cracks in the containment structure at the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida. However, there are significant differences between the two plants. Crystal River’s containment vessel is attached to the shield building serving as a single structure to prevent radiation from reaching the environment whereas at Davis-Besse, the free-standing steel containment vessel, which is separate from the shield building, serves that function. Because of this difference, the cracks identified in the containment structure at Crystal River in 2009 challenge its safety and that is why the plant is currently shut down.

Viktoria Mitlyng
Region III Public Affairs

NRC Gets Thumbs Up from Washingtonian Magazine

The Washingtonian magazine has identified the NRC as one of the region’s 50 top companies to work for. The biennial “Great Places to Work” assessment includes a mix of trade associations, government agencies, nonprofits, law firms, information-technology companies, and government contractors.

Winners were chosen by a panel of editors and writers that reviewed more than 200 companies and about 13,000 employee surveys, including the Office of Personnel Management survey. This year’s winning workplaces were chosen on the basis of such measures as challenging and interesting work, great work/life balance, good pay and benefits, opportunities to learn and grow, financial stability, commitment to charity and community, and the recognition and respect given to employees.

We are pleased about this latest recognition of our efforts to provide a meaningful workplace for our employees. It’s their job to carry out our important mission to protect people and the environment by regulating the nuclear industry. Attracting and keeping talented staff helps us realize that mission.

The November issue of the Washingtonian magazine is now on news stands.

Beth Hayden
Office of Public Affairs
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