U.S. NRC Blog

Transparent, Participate, and Collaborate

Monthly Archives: May 2014

Exchanging Information on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Maria Guardiola
Chemical Engineer
Division of Fuel Cycle Safety and Safeguards

 

FCIX concept 2014If you follow the NRC closely, you’ve probably heard about our annual Regulatory Information Conference, which brings together a couple thousand people from around the world to discuss a wide range of topics related to the NRC’s work. This type of conference is an invaluable forum for the NRC and a variety of stakeholders—licensees, the public, other government officials—to discuss emerging issues, policy initiatives and nuclear safety.

In a couple weeks we’ll hold a similar but much smaller and more focused conference. The Fuel Cycle Information Exchange will be held June 10-11 at our Rockville, Md., headquarters. It allows the NRC to talk to and hear from industry, the public and government officials about issues related to the nuclear fuel cycle. By that we mean facilities that process uranium ore, meaning they convert it into a form that can be enriched (concentrated), enrich the uranium and fabricate it into nuclear fuel.

The ability to exchange information with stakeholders is so important to the work the NRC does. We value input from all our stakeholders, even from our critics. This format allows open dialogue and a free exchange of views that strengthens the safety basis for our decisions and fosters a greater awareness of important regulatory issues.

Much like the RIC, the fuel cycle conference is heavy on technical details but also features higher level policy talks from senior-level NRC managers. This year’s program includes remarks from Chairman Allison Macfarlane, chief executive Mark Satorius, and his deputy for materials, Mike Weber. Here are just some of the items on the agenda:

  • NRC’s Yucca Mountain activities
  • Analyzing chemical hazards
  • Radiation protection standards
  • Decommissioning planning
  • Nonproliferation and security
  • Considering spent fuel storage when designing nuclear fuel

Participants are also invited to tour the NRC’s Emergency Operations Center, where managers and staff would converge to monitor a licensee’s response to an emergency.

Join us if you can, or tune into our webcast of the executive remarks. If it doesn’t fit into your plans, though, you can rest assured we will use this conference to talk through important issues that will help us to keep you safe. You can find more information here.

Even the Best Guidance Can Be Updated

Don Tailleart
Regulatory Improvements Team Leader
Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response

 

Well-written documents can stand the test of time – just look at the Declaration of Independence. The NRC and FEMA aimed for durability 30 years ago as we responded to the Three Mile Island accident. We co-wrote criteria for nuclear power plants to prepare and evaluate emergency response plans and preparedness programs. That guidance document has been the go-to standard for plant staff, and emergency preparedness managers at the state, local and tribal level.

The NRC and FEMA realized, however, that when a document starts showing its age it’s time for a revision. That’s why a joint NRC/FEMA team is revising NUREG-0654/FEMA-REP-1. This is an update rather than a complete rewrite. Our aim is to make the guidance more user-friendly by restructuring and streamlining it with a focus on evaluation criteria.

Evaluation criteria, by the way, are the parts of emergency plans and preparedness programs that directly respond to NRC or FEMA requirements. Both agencies use evaluation criteria when reviewing emergency plans to make sure the preparedness programs are acceptable.

Before starting on the revision, the NRC and FEMA took suggestions from the public and interested groups. Our writing teams used that information to refocus preliminary evaluation criteria language on capabilities and overall program elements. We’ve moved more detailed information on evaluation criteria implementation to a new NRC emergency preparedness guidance document and to the FEMA Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program Manual.

These changes reduced the number of criteria from 381 to about 190. Both the NRC and FEMA believe the updated criteria will provide an appropriate basis for U.S. nuclear power plants and state/local/tribal governments to develop radiological emergency plans and improve emergency preparedness.

Our writers have also been updating and adding several topics to the document’s introduction. The updated intro will address the document’s purpose, scope, and background, as well as the basis for developing emergency plans. New introduction topics include how the document will be used and how the document relates to regulations and other guidance documents. It also includes information on the alternative approaches used to meet NRC and FEMA requirements.

We expect to have the revised preliminary draft ready by the end of May. We’ll make the document available for public review and discussion, including holding another public meeting/webinar in late June at NRC headquarters. We expect to have a formal public comment period on the draft document starting in October 2014.

 

Throw Back Thursday — Name the Commissioner

tbtThis photo of a briefing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was taken on April 4, 1979, following the Three Mile Island accident. It was a challenging time for the NRC. Can you identify the individual facing the camera?

Southern California Fire Puts Spotlight on NRC Regs

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV
 

 A wildfire broke out on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base north of San Diego last Wednesday. The smoke could be seen by staff at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and a handful of non-essential plant workers were sent home as a precaution.

 Firefighters from Camp Pendleton, in California, work to douse a wildfire.


Firefighters from Camp Pendleton, in California, work to douse a wildfire.

Members of the plant’s fire department responded to the event and sprayed water on vegetation at the plant’s South Yard to retard the fire’s progress. San Onofre also dispatched some of its personnel to Camp Pendleton to assist base personnel with firefighting efforts on the ground, while helicopters from the Marine base dropped buckets of water on the fire.

The blaze, which was sparked by an accident on Interstate 5, was brought under control in a few hours and never got closer than a half-mile from the owner-controlled area of the plant.

The San Onofre nuclear plant is shut down and preparing to decommission, and remained stable throughout the event. An NRC inspector onsite verified plant conditions and monitored the licensee’s response to the fire from the plant’s control room, relaying information to the NRC’s Region IV office in Arlington, Texas. Because the fire never reached the site or disrupted offsite power to the plant, no emergency declaration was necessary.

But the fire – and the start of the fire season in the West – does highlight NRC regulations related to natural disasters. As a part of their emergency preparedness plans, nuclear power plants are required by the NRC to be able to respond to a variety of natural disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and fires — which can disrupt offsite power needed for vital plant equipment, interfere with access to the site and cause damage to equipment and threaten the safety of personnel.

NRC requires that all nuclear plants have personnel who have been specially trained and are qualified to respond to fires. Some plants, like Diablo Canyon, maintain on-site fire departments. Others, like San Onofre, have arrangements with off-site fire departments or organizations like Camp Pendleton to supplement their initial response. NRC inspects these response plans to ensure their adequacy and effectiveness.

On Wednesday, we saw those plans put into action. It might not be the last time this year. The need for vigilance will continue in the months ahead for plants located in areas where a prolonged drought is raising concerns about the upcoming summer wildfire season.

NRC Science 101: What is Plutonium? UPDATED

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer
 

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals and matter. In this post, we will look at a specific chemical element — plutonium.

Plutonium is a radioactive, metallic element with the atomic number 94. It was discovered in 1940 by scientists studying the process of splitting atoms. Plutonium is created in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms, specifically uranium-238, absorb neutrons. Nearly all plutonium is man-made.

Plutonium predominantly emits alpha particles—a type of radiation that does not penetrate and has a short range. It also emits neutrons, beta particles and gamma rays. It is considered toxic, in part, because if it were to be inhaled it could deposit in lungs and eventually cause damage to the tissue.

Plutonium has five “common” isotopes, Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Pu-242. All of the more common isotopes of plutonium are “fissionable”—which means the atom’s nucleus can easily split apart if it is struck by a neutron.

The various isotopes of plutonium have been used in a number of applications. Plutonium-239 contains the highest quantities of fissile material, and is notably one of the primary fuels used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium-238 has more benign applications and has been used to power batteries for some heart pacemakers, as well as provide a long-lived heat source to power NASA space missions. Like uranium, plutonium can also be used to fuel nuclear power plants, as is done in a few countries. Currently, the U.S. does not use plutonium fuel in its power reactors.

plutoniumNuclear reactors that produce commercial power in the United States today create plutonium through the irradiation of uranium fuel. Some of the plutonium itself fissions—part of the chain reaction of splitting atoms that is the basis of nuclear power. Any plutonium that does not fission stays in the spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors contains about one percent plutonium by weight.

The different isotopes have different “half-lives” – the time it takes for one-half of a radioactive substance to decay. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and Pu-241’s half-life is 14.4 years. Substances with shorter half-lives decay more quickly than those with longer half-lives, so they emit more energetic radioactivity.

Like any radioactive isotopes, plutonium isotopes transform when they decay. They might become different plutonium isotopes or different elements, such as uranium or neptunium. Many of the “daughter products” of plutonium isotopes are themselves radioactive.

Many metric tons of plutonium are currently contained in spent nuclear fuel around the world. To be usable, plutonium needs to be separated from the other products in spent fuel through a method called reprocessing. Reprocessing separates plutonium from uranium and fission products through chemical means. Once separated, plutonium oxide can be used as fuel for nuclear power reactors by mixing it with uranium oxide to produce mixed oxide or MOX fuel. The U.S. government has historically discouraged the use of this technology for national security and environmental reasons.

The NRC is currently overseeing construction of a facility in South Carolina to make MOX fuel using plutonium removed from U.S. nuclear weapons declared excess to military needs, as part of a Department of Energy program to convert it into a proliferation-resistant form that would be difficult to convert again for use in nuclear weapons.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,529 other followers

%d bloggers like this: