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Category Archives: Emergency Preparedness and Response

Seeing Clearly Through the Cloud – Assessing a Leak at Honeywell

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

 

The sound of alarms during the evening of Oct. 26 at the Honeywell Metropolis Works alerted workers and those living closest to the Metropolis, Ill., site that something out of the ordinary had occurred.

Honeywell MetropolisThe plant, a fixture in the southern Illinois river town since 1958, is the nation’s only uranium conversion plant. It converts raw uranium, or yellowcake, into uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which is enriched at other facilities into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.

That Sunday evening, Honeywell experienced a leak of UF6. The leak occurred in a cold trap inside the Feed Materials Building. (A cold trap is a large tank where raw UF6 accumulates so it can be cooled and solidified and later heated and drained during normal plant operations.) The leak occurred while the cold trap was heated and was being drained.

An operator put on a respirator and confirmed the leak at 7:24 p.m. local time. Plant emergency responders were dispatched to shut down operations and account for all personnel. Honeywell declared a “plant emergency,” but did not declare an “Alert,” the lowest NRC emergency classification for fuel facilities. Honeywell advised the NRC the cold trap was isolated, vacuum devices were being used to collect leakage, and the material in the device was cooling by 8:15 p.m.

 No one was injured and Honeywell declared “all clear” status at 2:16 a.m. Monday.

People outside the plant reported that a cloud was visible, coming from the building even before mitigation spray towers were activated. Those towers generate gigantic streams of water and water vapor into the air inside and outside the plant, and contributed to clouds that were seen after they were activated.

The NRC quickly dispatched a senior fuel facilities inspector to Honeywell to independently assess what had occurred and how Honeywell had responded. Another inspector later travelled to the facility to gather more information.

After reviewing records, interviewing Honeywell employees and examining the affected areas, the NRC has reached a number of preliminary conclusions:

  • The leaking UF6 vaporized and interacted with moisture inside the Feed Building, which converted it into UO2F2 (a solid form of uranyl fluoride, a yellow powder).
  • The uranyl fluoride was contained within the Feed Building and settled within a few feet of the cold trap leak.
  • The chemical conversion process also produced hydrogen fluoride gas, some of which was visible emanating from the building.
  • The mitigating sprays outside the building were aimed at the windows in an effort to keep the hydrogen fluoride from getting offsite.
  • Honeywell implemented their emergency plan, assessing the event and taking the actions spelled out in the plan, including stopping the leak.
  • A potential violation was identified related to the emergency classification of the event and remains under agency review.
  • The hydrogen fluoride gas that left the building had no health effects for workers or nearby residents.

Honeywell plant management has agreed to the terms of a Confirmatory Action Letter issued by the NRC to not restart the facility until the NRC is satisfied that the company has appropriately addressed the emergency classification issues raised during and after the event. Honeywell has also agreed to a number of corrective actions, including revised training and emergency procedures. The NRC is monitoring an emergency exercise at Honeywell to ensure that corrective measures are in place.

The NRC will remain vigilant and will closely inspect the corrective actions made by Honeywell this week under the CAL. As well, the NRC will consider potential enforcement actions stemming from the event.

Update: You can read the latest Preliminary Notification here.

Making Sure SAFER Resources Are Ready To Go

Jack Davis
Director, Japan Lessons Learned Division
 

mitigation_strategies_infographic_r4Part of the U.S. nuclear power industry’s response to the NRC’s post-Fukushima Mitigation Strategies Order involves emergency equipment centers in Memphis, Tenn., and Phoenix, Ariz. The centers have multiple sets of generators, pumps and other equipment. The centers would send needed equipment to a U.S. nuclear plant to maintain safety functions indefinitely if an event disabled that plant’s installed safety systems.

The NRC’s been reviewing how an industry group, the Strategic Alliance for FLEX Emergency Response (SAFER), can move equipment from the response centers to plants. We observed two demonstrations SAFER ran in July and reviewed SAFER’s equipment, procedures, and deployment strategy. Overall, the NRC staff concludes that having the response centers and the group’s plans and procedures in place will enable plants to comply with the final phase of the Order.

The group has contracted with Federal Express (for both truck and aircraft shipment) to get supplies to a plant within 24 hours of a request. SAFER’s documentation of FedEx’s capabilities included a proven ability to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to get proper access to otherwise restricted airspace in the event that equipment must be flown to a nuclear power plant site. 

One SAFER demonstration sent equipment by road from Memphis to the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. The NRC staff noted some areas for improvement, such as clarifying who’s responsible for unloading equipment at a site or where the equipment’s first tank of fuel will come from. SAFER responded by adding details to its plans and beefing up its training program.

The other demonstration simulated airlift of equipment from Phoenix to the Surry plant in Virginia. After the NRC shared its observations, SAFER gave our staff additional details on how it would obtain helicopters to bring supplies to a plant if area roads are impassable.

 We also reviewed a report on the Memphis center’s test of packing the equipment to efficiently load and fit onto FedEx’s planes. Although the test generated a delivery schedule a few minutes longer than the industry expected, the NRC is satisfied that SAFER has applied lessons learned to streamline its approach and ensure SAFER can meet its own deadlines.

 Our website’s Japan Lessons Learned section can give you more information about the mitigation strategy requirements and related guidance.

Be Aware, Take Action to Prepare

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

Be Disaster Aware, Take Action to PrepareSeptember is National Preparedness Month, a time each year to reflect on the importance of knowing what to do before, during and after an emergency. The first step in preparing is to know your hazard. Once you do, FEMA has a wealth of resources to help you plan.

If you live near a nuclear power plant, you probably know it has operated safely and securely for decades. You should still be prepared in the unlikely event of a plant emergency. The two most important things to know are:

1) if you hear a siren or alert, tune in for instructions from state or local officials, and

2) follow those instructions.

A key part of the NRC’s mission is to make sure adequate plans are in place to protect the health and safety of the public. We require plant operators to develop emergency preparedness plans and regularly practice carrying them out in emergency exercises that include first responders and local and other federal government agencies.

These exercises test the skills of those who would respond in a real emergency and identify any areas that need to be addressed. We assess the operators’ performance during exercises. As part of our regular inspections, we also make sure the operators’ emergency plans meet our requirements and are capable of protecting the public.

While the NRC holds to operator to account for their on-site performance, FEMA evaluates how well the offsite response organizations perform during exercises to ensure that they are meeting FEMA requirements.

If you live near an operating nuclear power plant, you should already know whether you work or reside in the “Emergency Planning Zone.” This information would come from your state or local government. You could also receive an annual mailing from the plant. The exact zones and their configurations depend on a number of factors, such as specific site conditions, population and local emergency response.

In the event of an emergency, the plant operator will be in close contact with state and local officials, including emergency responders. Local officials, not the NRC, will make decisions regarding the best course of action. These decisions will factor in technical information about the plant and the weather, as well as other details regarding local emergency plans. That is why it’s important to tune in to their instructions.

It is important to keep in mind that evacuation is not always the best course of action. Depending on your location, you may or may not be advised to take potassium iodide as a way to protect your thyroid. State and local officials are in the best position to make these decisions, so do not take action until you receive instruction from them.

If you want more information on emergency planning, see our website. For more information on National Preparedness Month, check out this website. And don’t forget that FEMA has set aside Sept. 30 for America’s PrepareAthon, an opportunity for everyone to prepare for specific hazards that might affect them.

Watching Response Centers Put Trucks on the Road

Lauren Gibson
Project Manager
Japan Lessons-Learned Division

 

The nuclear industry has officially opened two National Response Centers — in Memphis, Tenn., and Phoenix, Ariz. These response centers help U.S. nuclear power plants meet the requirements of the NRC’s Mitigation Strategies Order, which we issued after the Fukushima accident.

The centers, previously called Regional Response Centers, contain extra equipment to duplicate plants’ emergency diesel generators, pumps, hoses and so on. This equipment would maintain plant safety functions for an indefinite period if an event disabled a plant’s installed safety systems. An industry group, called the Strategic Alliance for FLEX Emergency Response (SAFER), is managing the response centers. This organization also has two control centers that are separate from response centers and would coordinate equipment deliveries.

mitigation_strategies_infographic_r4SAFER has completed two exercises to demonstrate to the NRC they can get backup equipment to any site within 24 hours. NRC staff observed these “proof-of-concept” exercises. The first demonstrated transporting emergency equipment by road from the Memphis response center to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station in Pennsylvania within the required time. The second exercise involved sending equipment by air from the Phoenix response center to the Surry Power Station in Virginia within the required time.

The NRC staff watched to make sure the equipment can be successfully shipped and delivered. We also observed and evaluated the plants’ — and SAFER’s– communication and coordination throughout the exercises. The conclusions we’re drawing from these exercises will be one input in deciding whether the plants can meet the requirements of Phase 3 of the Mitigation Strategies Order. We’ll send the industry a letter reviewing the performance of the national response centers and SAFER this fall.

While the NRC regulates the individual nuclear power plants that would request and receive the equipment, SAFER is not an NRC licensee. Nevertheless the NRC’s regulatory role does extend to the National Response Centers. Since the centers are key to how plants meet the Mitigation Strategies Order, we’re certainly interested in their performance. To expedite the availability of these Centers to respond, the NRC is working in parallel to design our regulatory oversight approach. Whatever the exact mechanism, you can be sure that the key consideration will be protecting the public’s health and safety.

You can see our website’s Japan Lessons Learned section for more information about the mitigation strategy requirements and related guidance.

 

 

Natural Hazards Are Part of the Planning

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

 

Up to now the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season has been pretty calm, but the NRC always keeps an eye out for the strong weather-related events and other natural events the world can generate. We make sure both U.S. nuclear power plants and the agency are prepared for high winds, storm surge and a whole lot more.

Most recently, the seven reactors affected by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy remained safe. Other plants have safely withstood powerful storms, including Waterford 3 in Louisiana handling the effects of 2005’s Katrina and Turkey Point in Florida safely taking a direct hit from 1992′s Andrew.

Sandy may have left a mess in New York, but the nuclear reactors in its wake remained safe. Photo courtesy of FEMA

Sandy left a mess in New York, but the nuclear reactors in its wake remained safe. Photo courtesy of FEMA

Flooding can happen with or without storms, and U.S. plants are designed to and safely ride out significant events, such as when Fort Calhoun in Nebraska dealt with an overflowing Missouri River in 2011. Also in that year, Vermont Yankee remained safe as the Connecticut River valley suffered severe short-term floods from Hurricane Irene’s remnants.

Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in March 2012 showed the world what flooding (in this case from a tsunami) can do to a reactor. The NRC’s learned several flooding-related lessons. from the accident. As a result of NRC direction, U.S. plants are using the latest software and technical know-how to re-analyze all flooding sources. This will help the NRC determine if the plants need to consider higher flooding water levels when establishing plans to stay safe. This effort has also examined existing flood protection and all plants have taken steps to confirm they can implement reliable flood safety plans. In the meantime, several plants have also chosen to enhance their flood protection.

An earthquake caused the tsunami that devastated Fukushima, and again U.S. plants are designed to stay safe in the face of quakes that affect their area. Virginia’s North Anna plant was hit by an August 2011 quake centered a short distance away. The earthquake was strong enough to be felt across the East Coast; it shook North Anna with a little more force than what the plant was originally designed to withstand. North Anna remained safe – multiple inspections showed the plant’s systems were undamaged. This was unsurprising, since plant systems are designed to withstand a combination of events that can exceed the forces generated by an earthquake alone.

As with flooding, the NRC has learned from Fukushima’s quake and other recent earthquakes, and we’re having every U.S. plant reanalyze earthquake hazards to see where enhancements might be needed. All the plants east of the Rockies have taken the first step in that process, and the other plants will do the same next March.

U.S. reactors are also designed for (and have safely survived) hazards such as tornadoes, droughts and other severe weather events. Even with all this preparation, Fukushima reminds us to prepare for the unexpected. The NRC’s approach here involves every U.S. reactor having additional portable systems to restore and maintain safety functions.

All of this work helps ensure the public stays safe when natural disasters strike that may impact U.S. nuclear power plants.

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