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Category Archives: Emergency Preparedness and Response

An NRC Official Writes About His First-Hand View of the Japan Nuclear Disaster

Eric Leeds
Director, Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation
 

Last month, I traveled to Japan with a group of senior NRC executives, including all four Regional Administrators. We spent a busy week meeting with representatives from various Japanese organizations involved in nuclear activities, as well as touring the Kashiwazaki Kariwa, Fukushima Dai-ni and Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants.

At the end of almost every day, we took time to reflect, to discuss what we learned, and to record our thoughts. I wanted to offer a few personal insights from what I found to be a profound experience.

On the bus ride to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of the accident in 2011, we passed through the town of Tomioka, about 7 to 10 km south of the site. Before the accident, Tomioka had been a vibrant seaside village of approximately 16,000 residents. It was a resort town, with its own train stop, beachfront, restaurants and hotels.

test11The town is now empty, uninhabitable because of radiological contamination (about 1 microsievert an hour). There are no inhabitants, no electricity, no running water. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami remains. Those who had lived in the town are now allowed to enter to visit their homes, but they can’t stay overnight. The authorities are decontaminating the town and plan to have it inhabitable in about three years. Thinking about the people who, for all this time, have lost their homes, lost their jobs, and lost their community leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. For me, a career safety regulator, the feeling is very personal.

When we reached the site, we boarded a different bus, a bus prepared for a contaminated site, with plastic herculite covering the seats and more plastic and duct tape covering the floor. We donned a full set of anti-contamination clothing, shoe covers, and respirators. There are about 250 cars, trucks, and buses on site, ferrying a site workforce of about 4,000 workers. As we passed workers at the site and in other vehicles, it struck me that everyone was wearing full anti-Cs, respirators, and helmets. It left me with an eerie feeling, as if I were in a science fiction movie.

We toured the site, often leaving the bus to see specific site areas. While a great deal of work has already been accomplished, much of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami remains, if only pushed to the side. Broken buildings, twisted metal, crushed concrete and smashed vehicles still litter the site. TEPCO is currently moving the spent fuel from the Unit 4 spent fuel pool to the common pool for the site, and we toured both pools. Since we could not get into the containments of the damaged reactors due to the ongoing high dose rates, our hosts took us to the torus room of the undamaged Unit 5 containment, to show us where the containment vent valves were located on the damaged units. This was done so we could understand the difficulty the operators faced in trying to manually open the valves.

ericquote1I tried to picture the challenge for the operators, going into this confined area in pitch black, the heat stifling, the dose rate steadily increasing, looking for the valves they’d have to operate manually. The descriptions of the accident from the operators who lived through the ordeal will stay with me forever. Many of them truly believed they were going to die. They had no idea if their families survived the tsunami or where their families were. Yet they stayed and fought the accident. They were incredibly courageous.

I am more convinced than ever that the Fukushima lessons learned we are requiring the industry to implement are critical to ensure an accident like the one at Fukushima doesn’t happen here. We have to ensure the licensees fully implement, maintain, and exercise the Fukushima lessons learned. We have to make sure the licensees prepare their facilities and are ready to confront the unexpected. We are the ones who are accountable to and responsible for protecting the American public. It’s our job. For me, it’s personal. It’s what I’m here to do.

Marking Three Years of Post-Fukushima Progress

Allison M. Macfarlane
Chairman
 

The approach to the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex winds through empty villages where weeds grow in silent communities, storefronts are shattered and advertising signs entice a population that may be years in returning.

A year ago I visited the site of the devastating March 11, 2011, accident triggered by a massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 46-foot tsunami.

Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials stand in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of TEPCO

Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials stand in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of TEPCO

The site where four of six reactors were inundated bears testament not only to the power of the natural forces but also to the huge hydrogen explosions that rocked three of the reactors. Rusting trucks lay about the property. And thousands of workers in protective gear and full-face respirators scramble over the shattered industrial complex.

It is hard to visit the site without coming away impressed with the forces at work and a recognition this cannot be allowed to happen again anywhere. In the United States, we must redouble our efforts to prevent such an accident here, whether caused by an earthquake, another natural disaster or a man-made event.

Not long after the accident at Fukushima, the independent U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission I chair embarked on a concerted effort to learn and apply lessons from Fukushima. The Commission set out a three-tiered program of safety enhancements.

Many of the recommendations — while complex — are grounded in simple concepts. Among them are ensuring all U.S. plants take the latest seismic and flooding information into account; ensuring that the 31 U.S. early design boiling water reactors similar to those at Fukushima have the capacity to vent pressure and perhaps even filter vented air; ensuring there is sufficient additional equipment at the ready to deal with a loss of power at a reactor site and provide backup cooling; and getting additional sensors and cooling capacity for spent fuel pools.

The NRC staff and the nuclear industry have made good progress in responding to the recommendations to date.

We have approved plans for nuclear power plants to buy additional equipment and distribute it around their sites so that they will be able to respond even if a severe event disables permanently installed equipment. They are in the process of installing spent fuel pool instrumentation, and this spring and fall they will begin major work to accommodate hardened venting systems and additional wiring and piping to connect to newly installed cooling equipment.

JLD vertical CEvery U.S. plant is in the process of completing an in-depth reanalysis of their sites’ potential for floods and earthquakes. We’ve checked the first flooding analyses and expect more in soon. We also expect the earthquake analyses from the vast majority of U.S. plants by the end of March. We’ll ensure the plants compare their sites’ new analyses to their existing designs to see what enhancements might be needed.

The NRC has conducted our work following Fukushima in a spirit of openness and transparency, and we’ve benefitted greatly from public feedback. Over the past three years we’ve addressed Fukushima-related topics in more than 150 public meetings. These meetings let the public see and participate in discussions on proposed NRC actions and the industry’s responses.

Finally, let me address the occasional Internet-based concerns we’ve seen about Fukushima contamination in the Pacific Ocean. Contamination near Japan’s coast is well below U.S. and international drinking water limits. And the Pacific’s vast volume has greatly dispersed any contamination before it can reach our west coast. Here the concentrations are projected to be hundreds or a thousand or more times below already strict U.S. and international limits that protect public health and the environment. Scientists have not seen any Fukushima contamination that raises a concern about the U.S. food supply, water supply, or public health.

The images of Fukushima are indelibly impressed on my mind. Even now I’m still struck by the experience of seeing the empty nearby villages, each holding memories of the 160,000 people displaced by the accident. Fukushima put nuclear safety in the spotlight. As we continue our work to address lessons learned, the NRC is committed to keeping it there

Going Shopping To Replace Potassium Iodide for Participating States

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

The Department of Health and Human Services, acting on behalf of the NRC, last month issued a procurement order for 14 million tablets of potassium iodide to replenish out-of-date supplies. This drug, also known by its chemical symbol KI, is used to protect the thyroid against radioactive iodine should a nuclear power plant accident occur, and is part of NRC’s program to help states and localities with their emergency response plans.

The NRC first offered KI tablets to states with residents living within the 10-mile emergency protection zone of a nuclear power plant in 2001. The agency recommends that states consider including KI in their emergency preparedness plans and provides it to those states that ask for it. Currently, 25 states have requested and received the pills.

The NRC’s policy is to offer KI to states once every six years to replace pills that may have passed their shelf life. The recent order is the third wave of replenishing KI. While this matter has been subject of some social media attention as perhaps indicative of some imminent threat, supplying KI is nothing new. Including KI in emergency plans is a decades old precaution. However, this is the first time the NRC has used the HHS medical procurement service to order KI. The NRC decided to go through HHS this time in order to leverage federal buying power and reduce costs.

Here are some other facts about KI:

• KI protects the thyroid from iodine-131, a radioisotope that would likely be released into the air during a nuclear power plant accident. It does not protect against all forms of radiation and is to be taken in addition to other protective measures, such as sheltering.

• Residents living near nuclear plants should take KI only when directed by local authorities during an incident – it is not a daily supplement to build up immunity, as some have advertised on the Internet. In fact, daily use can be harmful.

If you live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant and want to inquire about obtaining KI and/or disposing of expired KI, contact your state health authorities.

New Op Center Makes NRC Response More Efficient

Bill Gott
Chief, Operations Branch
Division of Preparedness and Response
 

The NRC’s Emergency Operations Center in Rockville, Md., is the hot spot for agency responders during real events and exercises. It was there that experts convened when planes became terrorist tools in 2001 and when Fukushima’s reactors began to fail after a massive tsunami in 2011.

It’s also been hub for countless exercises and smaller events that pull together trained responders from throughout the agency to staff teams responsible for monitoring reactor responses, planning for protective actions, and staying connected with stakeholders ranging from other federal agencies to Congress and the media.

But the Op Center had issues as a work space. It was cramped, with low ceilings and a strange use of space to accommodate the “wagon wheel” design, with all teams arranged around the decision-making Executive Team. It was also a design based on people moving around and passing paper.

As far back as 2008, the NRC began looking at options for redesigning and/or moving the Op Center. With the impending construction of the 3WFN building, the decision was made in 2010 to move the center across the street to the new addition to the headquarters complex.

A view of the agency's new Op Center, with the Executive Team on the left and the Reactor Safety and Protective Measures teams on the right, seen here during an exercise.

A view of the agency’s new Op Center, with the Executive Team on the left and the Reactor Safety and Protective Measures teams on the right, seen here during an exercise.

While the footprint is about the same in terms of square feet, the new center has a large open area and a better design with a more efficient use of space. A large “video wall” with six projectors and 80 linear feet of room allows maps, status information, chronologies, task check lists and news feeds to be presented simultaneously for all responders to see. LED lighting provides a better spectrum, saves energy and is easier on the eyes for responders often working 12-hour shifts during real emergencies.

The new space also relies on web cams and head sets for responders to give briefings to the Executive Team. This reduces foot traffic, noise, and the need for team leaders to be away giving briefings when they are needed to be near their response staff. The Executive Team members – the agency’s top managers – have their own laptop computers to stay better connected via email and the internet to response information without relying on the “transfer of paper” that was the norm previously.

Separate spaces for the support teams include an expanded room for the Federal Liaison Team, which has increased its members since Fukushima. The room has space for liaisons from other federal agencies to be part of the NRC response.

And there is a secure conference room and safeguards team room for discussion of classified information. Also in the new Op Center is space for the Headquarters Operations Officers – key personnel who staff the center 24-hours-a-day as the link between the agency and licensees.

The Op Center’s location in the basement of the new building is an additional plus. It has no windows and is considered more secure and robust in the event of a severe weather event that might have rendered the former Op Center temporarily unusable.

All in all, the new Op Center helps the NRC be ready to respond to any incident involving its licensees.

Nuclear Fuel Facilities Prepare For Emergencies, Too

Michael Norris
Operating Reactor Licensing Team Leader
 

Nuclear power plants need uranium-based fuel to run, and while the NRC doesn’t regulate mining of uranium ore, we do license and regulate the facilities that process uranium into reactor fuel.

While these fuel facilities don’t present the same concerns as a commercial power reactor, the NRC still requires them to plan for various types of events that might affect public health. All nuclear fuel facilities must fuelfacilitymapbe prepared for fires, natural events such as hurricanes, and emergencies involving other hazardous chemicals.

Facilities in the uranium conversion and enrichment process have to guard against a potential chemical hazard, not radioactive contamination. The uranium in these facilities is combined with fluorine, a very corrosive chemical. These plants’ emergency plans must be able to keep plant workers and the public safe if the uranium compound gets into the atmosphere.

Facilities that create the fuel pellets have to be concerned with unintentionally collecting too much enriched uranium in a small space and causing a small-scale nuclear reaction, called a criticality. These plants’ emergency plans must protect both plant staff and the public from the criticality’s radiation.

In their emergency plans, fuel facilities must address how they would respond to each of these potential accidents. They must describe the equipment that would be used, the responsibilities of various personnel, and how offsite response organizations would be notified in an emergency.

In addition, fuel facilities must also participate in exercises to practice their response to simulated emergencies and indicate how they will train their employees to respond to emergency situations. The NRC reviews and inspects each site’s emergency plan to make sure it meets federal requirements to adequately handle the types of emergencies that could happen at fuel facilities.

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