U.S. NRC Blog

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Category Archives: New Reactors

Checking the Links in the Nuclear Supply Chain

Mary Anderson
Vendor Inspector
Office of New Reactors

 

The NRC’s focus on nuclear power plant safety doesn’t stop at the plants. Since the 1970s (at that time under the Atomic Energy Commission), NRC inspectors have kept a watch on the companies that provide safety-related components and services to U.S. plants.

 magnifyingglassThe agency believes plants and vendors have effective quality assurance programs in place to proactively prevent the use of counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. These programs include careful supplier selections, effective oversight of sub-suppliers, and the authority to challenge a part’s “pedigree” when necessary. 

The NRC oversees these quality activities by inspecting nuclear power plants and their vendors. Vendor inspection can include site visits to production facilities. We create and share information and guidance for the nuclear industry to improve detection of counterfeit and fraudulently marketed products. We also incorporate this information into our inspection programs. The NRC has yet to see any instance of these items in safety-related systems in U.S. plants, but constant vigilance by the licensees and the NRC is essential to make sure it stays that way.

 These days our Vendor Inspection Center of Expertise operates out of the Office of New Reactors to cover both operating reactors and those under construction. NRC staff experts inspect vendors, and observe when plants audit their suppliers, to determine if the plants are properly overseeing their supply chain. Importantly, the NRC also verifies that the plants and their vendors comply with our quality assurance criteria and our “Part 21” requirements for reporting defects and noncompliance, as well as applicable codes and standards.

 The center’s staff also inspect companies applying for design certificates, early site permits or combined licenses. We check on whether the applicants have effective quality assurance processes and procedures for activities related to their applications.

 Right now, we’re working on several vendor-related issues, including evaluating the industry’s process for safely upgrading commercial products that aren’t specifically made for nuclear applications to be used in some plant systems. Common items such as gaskets, nuts and bolts, and electrical relays could be acceptable for nuclear plant use, for example.

 We’re updating and simplifying Part 21, the NRC regulation that covers counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. We’re also confirming effective controls are in place to prevent such items from making their way into the U.S. safety-system supply chain. We’re clarifying the processes for evaluating and reporting defects, and the acceptance criteria for off-the-shelf commercial products. The Center is developing regulatory guides so plants and vendors better understand these processes.

 The NRC’s vendor workshop in Portland, Ore., gave us a forum to put this issue in the spotlight. Among a range of vendor topics, this year’s workshop included an industry perspective on counterfeit, fraudulent, and suspect items.

 The NRC has also been actively involved with our international partners to address the risk of counterfeit and fraudulent items. We’ve collaborated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency to share best practices and recommend options to strengthen inspection programs and increase information sharing.

Starting a Reactor Design Review the Right Way

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
 

A few months ago, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. gave the NRC an application to certify the company’s Advanced Power Reactor 1400 design for use in the U.S. We’d been having “pre-application” discussions with the company since April 2010.

In September of this year, the company felt its information was ready for a full review. After our acceptance check of the application, however, we’ve decided the process should remain at the pre-application stage.

While most of the application’s sections and chapters have enough information for the NRC to review, there are important exceptions. For example, our technical experts don’t see a clear path for predictably and efficiently reviewing important areas such as instruments and controls, how human actions affect reactor operations, and assessing risk.

We also didn’t see enough detail for some specific technical issues, such as reactor coolant pump design, potential corrosion of some internal reactor parts and protecting plant staff from radiation. Other areas referenced technical reports to be submitted in the future.

At this point it’s the company’s decision on how to proceed – if they wish to continue pre-application meetings and related discussions, we’ll certainly do so. The formal review, however, will have to wait until the NRC is satisfied the application has enough information for our staff to create a reasonable, reliable schedule and milestones for the certification process.

Let’s be clear – none of this represents any sort of NRC technical conclusion regarding the Korean reactor design. We’re well aware that other countries are building or considering the design, and we continue to work with a multinational group discussing this and other new reactor designs. This decision doesn’t set any precedents, either. We’ve previously decided against accepting the initial applications for both a U.S.-based design certification and a new reactor operating license. The NRC also followed this path for a couple of applications to renew existing U.S. reactor licenses.

The bottom line is that the NRC must ensure proposed reactor designs can meet our safety requirements. We owe it not only to the public to do that job properly, but also to applicants to do so effectively and predictably. The best way to do that is to have the appropriate information in hand before we begin our work.

Fifty Years of Laying Down the Law on Things Nuclear

Roy Hawkens
Chief Administrative Judge
ASLB Panel
 

Fifty years ago, the U.S. was performing its first nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, the Beach Boys introduced “surfin’ ” music, and three prisoners supposedly became the first and last to ever successfully escape from the prison on Alcatraz. And the first Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) was created, and presided over a hearing on a proposed new nuclear reactor.

ASLBs independently review the NRC’s actions to ensure they follow not only U.S. law, including the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, but also existing agency regulations and past precedent. A Board’s rulings can make the NRC staff reconsider technical and legal conclusions they may have reached on a matter, and can even mean denial of license applications or amendments. Board decisions, though, can be appealed to the five-member Commission.

ALSB Panel Chief Administrative Judge Roy Hawkens (center) discusses Board business with ASLB Panel Associate Chief Administrative Judge Paul Ryerson (left) and ASLB Judge Alex Karlin in the Board’s Hearing Facility at NRC Headquarters.

ALSB Panel Chief Administrative Judge Roy Hawkens (center) discusses Board business with ASLB Panel Associate Chief Administrative Judge Paul Ryerson (left) and ASLB Judge Alex Karlin in the Board’s Hearing Facility at NRC Headquarters.

The original Atomic Energy Act in 1954 called for a single, legally-trained “hearing examiner” – today we’d say “administrative law judge” – to preside over legal and technical challenges to nuclear licensing and regulation. Later, when Congress amended the law in August 1962, the NRC’s predecessor agency was able to use, instead, an approach that more appropriately addressed the relevant legal, scientific and regulatory issues — three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards that included one or more judges with scientific expertise.

The revised law’s section 191 generally calls for a Board to have two technical members and a chairman “qualified in the conduct of administrative proceedings,” a legislative term-of-art for “lawyer.” The Atomic Energy Commission initially staffed these Licensing Boards using a pool of four attorneys (three of whom were already hearing examiners) and 11 technical specialists in areas including physics, nuclear engineering and nuclear chemistry.

The Board approach was put into practice in November 1962, for the Power Reactor Development Corp. case involving the Michigan-based Fermi I reactor. A week later the AEC appointed another Board to handle an uncontested construction permit case for a proposed Babcock and Wilcox test reactor near Lynchburg, Va. The Babcock and Wilcox Board conducted the first ASLB evidentiary hearing in Lynchburg on Dec. 10, 1962, and issued the first Board initial decision on Jan. 14, 1963.

In April 1967, the AEC created a process by which individuals from a panel of judges are assigned to particular Boards. Today’s NRC refers cases to the ASLB Panel’s chairman, who selects judges from among the Commission-appointed pool of full-time and part-time members. All told, between November 1962 and today, these special judges have presided over some 900 cases, covering not only issuing and renewing nuclear power reactors licenses, but also nuclear fuel cycle issues such as uranium enrichment.

The Boards’ work also examines licensing various medical, academic, and industrial uses of nuclear materials, as well as high and low-level nuclear waste disposal facilities (such as dry cask spent fuel storage); reactor and materials site decommissioning; and cases involving enforcement orders and civil penalties.

As ASLBs have presided over all these cases, the Panel’s pool of experts has expanded beyond law, nuclear engineering, and physics. Over the years, Board members have had expertise in such disciplines as health physics, medicine, chemistry, marine and land biology, ecology and environmental science, oceanography, geology and geophysics, economics, and mechanical, civil, sanitary, and environmental engineering. The five-member NRC Commission appoints both the full-time and part-time Panel members for their technical and legal expertise.

NRC Chat Considers A Possible “Small” Future

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
 

smrThe NRC’s first few Chats have focused on the present or past, but this week we’re going to look ahead a couple years by talking about Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs.

These reactor concepts are much smaller than today’s nuclear power plants. The small designs currently being discussed would generate less than 200 megawatts of electricity per reactor, compared to the 1,000 megawatts or more coming from many current reactors. These compact designs could be grouped at a single site, with each reactor a “module” in the overall power plant. SMRs would be built at a factory and could be transported to their final location by truck or train.

Join us on Chat today at 2 p.m. Eastern with your questions for Anna Bradford, a senior manager for SMR activities in the agency’s Office of New Reactors. Anna will spend an hour answering your questions about the basics of SMRs, as well as the NRC’s plans for reviewing both reactor designs and possible locations for SMR-based nuclear power plants.

Note: The archive of this Chat is available here.

Taking an Updated Look at a Potential Accident’s Economic Consequences

Rich Correia
Director, Division of Risk Analysis
Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research
 

The NRC’s review of new reactor licenses, renewal of existing licenses or major changes to our safety regulations involves an analysis of the impacts of potential accidents. Long before the 2011 accident at Fukushima, these analyses included the possibility of radioactive contamination causing economic harm, such as by making land unusable. Now, the Commission — after considering recommendations from the agency’s technical and legal staff — has directed the NRC staff to update our guidance on considering economic consequences.

Property damage, business losses and other accident effects were a regular part of our public conversations last year as the NRC began implementing the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident. Subsequently, we decided to review the agency’s current economic consequence analysis and consider options for possibly changing the process.

In following this Commission-directed update, the agency will examine the information used in comparing the costs and benefits of a potential safety rule change or nuclear power plant modification. For example, we’ll revise the costs of replacing a damaged reactor’s electricity output, since generation and transmission markets have been deregulated in some cases. We’ll also consider how changes in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules have affected transmission costs. We’ll revise our guidance for economic consequences costs based on up-to-date data and what we’ve learned from recent and ongoing accident analysis (such as last year’s State-of-the-art Reactor Consequences Analyses).

Following the Commission’s direction, we’re going to develop a follow-on paper that describes and assesses for Commission consideration potential changes to our cost-benefit analysis guidance. We’ll be holding a public meeting in the near future as part of this process, so members of the public and other interested parties can hear the staff’s plans, ask questions and provide comments to the staff.

The Commissioners’ individual votes on this decision are available on the NRC website.

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