U.S. NRC Blog

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Category Archives: General

Throw Back Thursday – What’s Underneath?

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????It’s neat and tidy — and clearly not an original part of this landscape. So what is buried underneath? Here’s a hint: It was built in 1992 and is located near Grants, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy

Improving NRC Processes—Part Two

Patricia Holahan
Director, Office of Enforcement

 

We wrote in June about steps we are taking to improve our “non-concurrence” process, which is a way for NRC staff to air a variety of views before final management decisions are made. Today, we’d like to fill you in on steps we are taking to improve our Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) process—used to bring NRC staff views on agency decisions to the highest levels of NRC management.

publicopinionBoth processes are important to creating an environment where NRC employees feel they can speak up when they disagree—the same safety conscious work environment we expect from our licensees.

First, a little context. The NRC makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions each year. To reach the best decisions, the agency encourages staff to bring their views forward throughout the process. This active engagement is essential.

NRC expects all employees to promptly discuss their views and concerns with their immediate supervisor on a regular basis. Employees are expected to raise concerns and propose solutions as early as possible in the decision-making process. In addition to informal discussions, which should be sufficient to resolve most issues, individuals have various options for expressing and having their differing views heard by decision makers.

In the vast majority of cases, an informal conversation is sufficient. But if not there are a number of avenues for elevating concerns. We have an Open Door policy that allows the staff to request a meeting with any manager at the NRC—including the Chairman and Commissioners—to raise concerns. This policy encourages employees to resolve their concerns informally. There is also the non-concurrence process, which allows the airing of issues through the concurrence chain before a decision is made. An employee who disagrees with an established position can use the DPO process.

The NRC is unique in not only having and promoting these programs, but in assessing them and reporting the results to the public. This transparency helps ensure that differing views do not get lost in the shuffle.

To gauge how well these processes are working, we used a variety of tools to measure user satisfaction and process effectiveness. As with our assessment of the non-concurrence process, the DPO assessment shows the process is sound. NRC staff knows about it and most would be willing to use it. Also like the earlier assessment, the DPO assessment has helped us to identify areas for improvement.

There have been 28 DPOs filed since 2004, or an average of two to three cases per year. In that same time frame, one DPO was withdrawn and 24 DPO decisions were issued. Given that so few NRC employees have direct experience with the process, we were encouraged to see from our agency-wide safety culture survey that only 15 percent of NRC employees would be unwilling to use it. While this number is small, it shows we have some work to do. We want all NRC employees to feel they can use the process, and that it will be effective and lead to better, more informed decision-making. We are also concerned about the 18 percent who worry using the process could impact career development and the 46 percent who are unsure.

These numbers present an opportunity to do more outreach and education to ensure NRC leadership is committed to the DPO process. We will also need to; develop clearer guidance and better tools and support the process; ensure training is readily available to all employees (including a focus on improved communications); and identify ways to address concerns about real and perceived  negative consequences for using the process.

publicopinionAs we work to make these improvements, we can also celebrate the things that make our DPO process strong. From looking at other agencies with similar processes, our assessment shows the NRC is unique in making summaries of our DPO decisions public and, if asked by those who file DPOs, releasing key DPO records.

We are also pleased by the feedback from DPO submitters. We surveyed the 12 who remain at the NRC and received nine responses. All nine reported their views were heard by management. Eight said the DPO panel was sufficiently knowledgeable, independent, impartial, timely, and thorough. The same number said they were understood and treated fairly. Seven said the process added value to the final decision, their views were fully considered, and their management was supportive. Six said they were recognized with a Special Act award or an NRC Team Player award.

As we move forward, we will build on these strengths and take additional steps to foster an organizational culture where employees take personal responsibility for their actions, feel part of a community and work toward shared goals. We value the feedback from these self-assessments and commit to responding constructively so we can continuously improve our performance.

National Cyber Security Awareness Month – It’s For Everyone

Joan Rolf
Senior Cyber Security Coordinator
 

cybersecgraphicOctober is National Cyber Security Awareness Month and – before we head into November – it’s now a good time to remember the importance of cyber security. Cyber crime threatens our work, personal life, identity and privacy. Here at the NRC, we’re committed to protecting our internal digital assets and information, as well as ensuring that our regulated facilities’ critical digital systems of are well protected. This vigilance supports the NRC’s security and safety missions.

All NRC employees are required to complete annual training on computer security. Some of the concepts we teach our employees are useful for everyone:

  • Set strong passwords and don’t share them with anyone.
  • Keep your operating system, browser, and other critical software optimized and secure by installing updates.
  • Maintain an open dialogue with your family, friends, and community about Internet safety.
  • Limit the amount of personal information you post online, and use privacy settings.
  • Be cautious about what you receive or read online; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The NRC ensures operating power reactor licensees and applicants seeking new licenses implement appropriate protections against cyber threats. Since 2009, the NRC has required each power plant to have a cyber security program in place to protect their computer and communications systems.

Over the last two years we have conducted more than 35 cyber security inspections and actively engaged licensees to ensure all identified issues are addressed. In the recently released “Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2014-2018,” we highlight the importance of cyber security guidance for nuclear power reactors, fuel cycle and spent fuel storage facilities, non-power reactors, decommissioned nuclear facilities, and materials licensees.

The NRC is developing a final rule, 10 CFR part 73.77, “Cyber Security Event Notifications,” which, if approved, will require timely notification of cyber security events. This rule is intended to improve the NRC’s ability to respond to cyber security-related plant events, enable the NRC to more effectively evaluate potential threats, and aid the NRC’s overall situational awareness.

reverse_cybersecgraphicIn our Cyber Security Directorate, part of the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, we continue to work with federal partners to protect the United States’ critical infrastructure. The NRC joins the Department of Homeland Security in its interagency and public-private efforts under the Sector Specific Agency Nuclear Sector. And we join with other government regulators on the newly-established Cyber Security Forum for Independent and Executive Branch Regulators, led by Chairman Allison Macfarlane. These partnerships strengthen our mutual knowledge base and provide agencies with an opportunity to share methods and approaches to enhance overall cyber security protection.

During Cyber Security Awareness Month, federal agencies are holding a variety of events to promote the conversation – among employees and the public – on this important topic. One of the most important things for our employees and our stakeholders to realize is the individual computer user is the first line of defense in cyber security.

NRC Employee Survey Shows Agency as a Top Performer

Miriam Cohen
Chief Human Capital Officer
 

Every year, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management polls federal workers and asks how they feel about their jobs, their leaders and their work culture, among other things. And now the results of the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are in. How did the NRC do?

We’re happy to say the NRC remains as a top performer. NRC employees gave high marks to the agency in such categories as:

  • Quality of Hire Q21 – My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills. (22.5 percent above the government average)
  • Resource Sufficiency Q9 – I have sufficient resources (for example, people, materials, budget) to get my job done. (21.9 percent above the government average)
  • High-Quality Recognition Q31 – Employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services. (19.3 percent above the government average)

Answers Marked on TestThe NRC also remains above the government-wide average in all categories — with the largest increases over last year in favorable responses centering on training and our ability to recruit the right people with the right skills.   

We saw an increase this past year in pay and job satisfaction along with significant progress in the area of talent management, which generally means everything done to recruit, retain, develop, and reward employees. Leadership and Knowledge Management dropped a single percentage point. The rest of our scores either stayed the same or improved.

This is the second survey in which OPM scored agencies in diversity and inclusion, which includes questions that measure characteristics of an agency that improve diversity and inclusion, such as being fair, open, cooperative, supportive and empowering. The so-called “IQ Index” for the NRC increased slightly from last year and remains well above the government benchmark.

The Employee ViewPoint Survey is anonymous, web-based, and offered to all permanent NRC employees. This year, 68 percent of NRC employees completed the survey (about 2,467 respondents out of 3,624). 

Obtaining employee input and taking action based on this input is a key a component of our agency’s continuous improvement efforts and a major reason why we have a highly engaged workforce. As we have done in the past, the agency will analyze the survey results and identify focus areas. We believe that as a result of our collective efforts the NRC remains a great place to work. 

We’ve posted our results on the agency website.

NRC Science 101: How a Nuclear Reactor Generates Electricity

Paul Rebstock
Senior Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer
 

science_101_squeakychalkHow does a nuclear reactor generate electricity? Well — it doesn’t, really. Let’s begin at the end and see how it all fits together.

We begin by looking at an electric motor. A motor consists primarily of two major components: a stator, which stands still, and a rotor, which rotates within the stator. When electricity is applied to the motor, electromagnets within the stator and the rotor push and pull on each other in a way that causes the rotor to rotate. The magnets in the stator pull magnets in the rotor toward them, and then, as the rotor magnets pass by reverse themselves and push the rotor magnets away.

The parts are arranged so the pulling and pushing are all in the same direction, so the rotor spins inside the stator. The electrical energy applied to the motor results in mechanical energy in the rotor.

But that same machine can be used in reverse: If some outside force causes the rotor to spin, the interaction of the magnets causes electricity to be produced: the “motor” is now a “generator,” producing electrical energy as a result of the mechanical energy applied to its rotor. That’s the most common way to make large quantities of electricity.

So how do you make the rotor spin? That’s where the nuclear reactor comes in, although still indirectly. Recall that a nuclear reactor generates heat. The fuel rods get hot because of the nuclear reaction. That heat is used to boil water, and the steam from that boiling water is used to spin the rotor. As we have seen, when the rotor spins, electricity comes out of the stator.

When water boils, the steam that is produced occupies much more physical space than the water that produced it. So if you pump water through some sort of a heat source — like a nuclear reactor, or a coal‑fired boiler — that is hot enough to boil the water, the exiting steam will be travelling much faster than the water going in. That steam runs through a machine called a turbine, which acts something like a highly‑sophisticated windmill. The physical structure is vastly different from a windmill, and a large turbine can be far more powerful than any windmill that has ever been made, but the effect is somewhat the same: the steam, or wind, causes part of the machine to spin, and that spinning part can be connected to a generator to produce electricity.

The steam leaving the turbine is collected in a device called a condenser — essentially a metal box the size of a house, with thousands of pipes running through it. Cool water flows through the pipes, and the steam from the turbine is cooled and condenses back into water. Then the water is pumped back through the heater and the cycle continues.

Now, back to the nuclear reactor . . . We have seen how the reactor generates heat, and we have seen how heat is used to generate steam and how the steam then powers the turbine, which spins the generator that produces electricity. The final piece in the puzzle is how the heat from the nuclear reaction generates the steam.

bwrThe fuel rods are suspended in a water bath contained in a large metal container somewhat like a gigantic pressure cooker. A typical “reactor vessel” might be 15 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, and some are much larger than that. In some types of reactors, the water is allowed to boil, and the heat generated in the fuel rods is carried away in steam. These are called “boiling water reactors” (or “BWR”).

In others, the water is held at a very high pressure — on the order of 2000 pounds per square inch. (By the way, that is more than 60 times the pressure in the tires of a typical car.) In that situation, the water cannot expand and cannot boil. The water in that type of reactor carries the heat away while remaining liquid, and that heat is then transferred to another water system where the boiling occurs. This transfer takes place in a device aptly named a “steam generator.”

These are called “pressurized water reactors” (or “PWR”). A small PWR might have two steam generators. A large one might have four. Some have three. The steam from all of the steam generators is typically combined into a single “main steam line” that carries the steam to the turbine, so the reactor and all of the steam generators act together as a single steam source.

The water from the condenser is pumped directly into the reactor vessel for a BWR, or into the steam generators for a PWR.

So there you have it: the nuclear reaction heats the fuel, the fuel heats the water to make steam, the steam spins the turbine, the turbine turns the generator, and the generator makes electricity.

The author has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University.

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