U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Recent Uprate Approved for Upstate New York

Enough news space has been devoted over the years to the prospects for new reactors in the U.S. to lay waste to several small forests and countless electrons. However, there is a different means by which the nation’s share of nuclear-generated electricity can be increased, and it does not involve earth-movers, the construction of new buildings or other changes visible to the casual observer.

Another option available to nuclear power plant owners is to pursue a power uprate, which essentially means an increase in the maximum amount of power a reactor can generate. But before a power uprate can be implemented, it must first undergo a thorough review by the NRC.

Just last week, the NRC approved a 15 percent power uprate for the Nine Mile Point 2 nuclear power plant in upstate New York. That approval was the culmination of an NRC review that began with the submittal of the application on May 27, 2009.

During the course of the agency’s evaluation of the proposal, NRC staff scrutinized data regarding the proposal and posed dozens of technical questions to the plant’s owner, Constellation. They included queries about the effects of greater stresses on piping and the plant’s steam dryer, a component at the top of the reactor vessel, as a result of operations at higher power levels.

The NRC does not proceed to a final decision until all such questions are answered to our full satisfaction.

Uprates are not a new development. In fact, the NRC approved the first uprate back in 1977 and has to date okayed 140 such applications. All told, the uprates have led to an increase in power output nationwide of about 6,000 megawatts electric.

There are three different kinds of power uprates: “measurement uncertainty recapture” uprates, “stretch” uprates and “extended” uprates. Here’s a brief description of each:

Measurement uncertainty recapture uprates – They involve an increase of less than 2 percent and are achieved by implementing enhanced techniques for calculating reactor power levels. State-of-the-art devices are used to more precisely measure feedwater flow, which is used to calculate reactor power.

Stretch uprates – The increases are typically between 2 and 7 percent and usually involve changes to instrumentation settings but do not require major plant modifications.

Extended uprates – Power boosts of this type have been approved for increases of up to 20 percent. They usually involve significant modifications to major pieces of non-nuclear equipment, such as high-pressure turbines, condensate pumps and motors, main generators and/or transformers. The Nine Mile Point 2 uprate would fall into this category.

For more information on power uprates, visit the NRC web site at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/licensing/power-uprates.html.

Neil Sheehan
Region I Public Affairs Officer

Acting as a ‘Neutral’ to Help NRC Meetings Be More Productive

The NRC hosts hundreds of public meetings each year. For the most part, these meetings go well — discussions take place, participants get what they need, and the parties move forward with plans and actions. From time-to-time, though, NRC staff members need some help to make a meeting successful. In those cases, an NRC facilitator may get involved.

An NRC facilitator is a specially trained NRC employee who acts as a “neutral” and whose main purpose is to make sure meetings are successful for all participants. This can mean anything from helping set up a productive agenda to making sure the public knows about the meeting to ensuring all meeting attendees have a chance to participate to rephrasing something someone has said to help people understand each other. Facilitators are there to represent the process of the meeting and to do what they can to assist all participants.

Can it be a challenge working for the NRC and yet acting as a neutral during an NRC meeting? Definitely. Acting as a neutral means in some cases you are helping NRC staffers get their point across and in other cases helping members of the public get their point across. There have been plenty of meetings where I have found myself devoting my energy to trying to get the NRC staff in attendance to understand the excellent point a member of the public has (in my opinion very clearly) made.

Good communication takes hard work, and when the topic is as complicated as nuclear regulation and you throw in some emotion on top of that, it can be even more challenging. A good facilitator can make the communication process a bit easier on everyone.

There is always room for improvement when it comes to our public meetings. Facilitators can go a long way to ensuring meetings are productive, but it’s your input that really helps us focus on what aspects of our public meetings needs improving. You can help us by always filling out a public meeting feedback form after an NRC public meeting and providing the form to an NRC staff member or dropping it in the mail.

We are currently taking steps to improve that form and to make filling it out easier (as in electronic). If you have some feedback, we can also take it here as a comment. Please be sure to let us know in your comments (here or on the form) if a facilitator was involved, and how he or she did.

Lance Rakovan
Senior Communications Specialist and Manager of NRC’s In-House Meeting Facilitator Program

The AP1000 is certified – Where do we go from here?

The NRC’s five Commissioners have approved a rule that certifies the amended AP1000 reactor design for use in the Unites States.

The Commissioners took this final step in the certification process after four years of review by the NRC’s technical staff. The staff carefully examined information from the reactor’s designer, Westinghouse, and asked thousands of additional questions to ensure the company appropriately resolved all the issues necessary to show the design is safe. The amended design includes changes to some reactor systems and it shows the AP1000 can keep the public safe even after the impact of a large commercial aircraft.

The new rule means the AP1000 is generally acceptable for use by companies interested in building and operating new U.S. nuclear power plants. Companies still have to show, however, that the reactor can be safely built and operated on a given piece of land in an environmentally acceptable way. The NRC’s Combined License process answers those site-specific questions.

Several companies submitted Combined License applications for the AP1000 while the design was still under review – NRC regulations allow this because certification must be complete before any decisions are reached on the licenses.

The NRC is now ready to complete the Combined License process for the first two AP1000 applications, one for the Vogtle site in Georgia and one for the Summer site in South Carolina. The Commission is now deciding if the applications and the NRC staff’s review meet the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

If the Commission concludes all the requirements are met, the NRC will be able to issue licenses for the Vogtle and Summer projects. These decisions are expected early next year.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

An easier-to-use ADAMS: You asked, we acted

Yes, it’s true – the NRC has just unveiled an even better ADAMS. The NRC’s Agencywide Documents Access and Management System, which is available from our website, now boasts a number of enhancements – some implemented directly as a result of public input.

We’ve been making continuous improvements and our latest enhancements include a new “content search” feature for searching words either in documents or in index information. Other enhancements include the:

• Ability to display up to 500 search results.

• Ability to save a search as a web link and then use it again to find your frequently requested documents.

• Ability to export a list of documents as hypertext markup language (HTML) or as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

• Ability to access search-specific folders by right-clicking on the folder or using the “Advanced Search” tab.

• Ability to more easily modify a saved search by changing your search criteria.

ADAMS is an online library that includes all the agency’s publicly available documents as well as a Public Legacy Library that has entries for 2 million older NRC documents stored on microfiche or in paper form.

If you have questions about any of the new search features or you need help to develop an effective search, the reference librarians in our Public Document Room are available to assist.

We hope you find the new search capabilities easier to use and we welcome your feedback via comments to this post.

Margie Janney
Deputy Director, Information and Records Services Division

The NRC and radioactive consumer products

Did you know the smoke detectors in your home may contain radioactive material? Many smoke detectors contain a small piece of a radioisotope called americium-241. This is what alerts you if your house catches fire – the americium ionizes the air, making it conductive, so that any smoke particles that enter the unit reduce the current and trigger the alarm.

Does your watch glow in the dark? Very handy in theaters if the movie’s boring. That feature could be tritium (hydrogen-3) or promethium-147. Older clock dials and watches used radium-226. Night sights for guns often use tritium.

So you see, some consumer products function because of radioactive material. And you may have guessed by now that the NRC has something to say about that. The agency has a policy statement on consumer products, published in 1965 by the Atomic Energy Commission, which we are currently proposing to update.

The policy statement incorporates the three fundamental principles of radiation protection: Justification of a practice; optimization of protection (the “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” practice, or ALARA); and application of dose limits to individuals. For example, under the policy, approval of a proposed consumer product depends upon both associated exposures of persons to radiation and the apparent usefulness of the product.

The policy calls for monitoring the amounts of radioactive materials being distributed for use by the general public and reconsidering the policy if there is any indication that materials in products reaching the public may result in a significant fraction of the permissible dose. Well-informed regulatory decisions in this area can have a significant effect on minimizing cumulative exposures to the public.

The NRC does not, however, approve consumer devices with radioactive material simply because they are cool. A proposed product must pass our “frivolous use” standard – meaning the radioactive source provides a benefit. Glow-in-the-dark trinkets need not apply.

So as you putter around your house, you may receive a very small radiation dose from the smoke detectors on your ceiling – but the possible life-saving benefit of those devices far outweighs any radiation risk. They are an example of the beneficial uses of radioactive material, and of how the NRC protects the public.

(The proposed revision to the NRC’s policy statement on consumer products was published in the Federal Register on October 14. Public comments on the revisions will be accepted through December 28, and may be submitted through the federal government’s rulemaking website using Docket ID NRC-2010-0292; by e-mail to Rulemaking.Comments@nrc.gov; by fax to 301-415-1101; or by mail to Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001, ATTN: Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff.)

Shirley Xu
Health Physicist
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