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Category Archives: Operating Reactors

NRC Embarks on First Phase of Increased Oversight Process at Pilgrim

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

As a new year kicks into gear, the NRC will be stepping up its oversight activities at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. The start of a formalized review process is in line with our pledge last year to apply additional scrutiny amid performance concerns.

pilgIn September, the agency announced the finalization of an inspection finding for the Plymouth, Mass., facility. Classified as “White,” or of low to moderate safety significance, the finding stemmed from issues involving the plant’s safety relief valves.

Based on that enforcement action, in combination with two earlier “White” findings received by the plant, Pilgrim moved to Column 4, of the agency’s Action Matrix, which dictates the agency’s level of oversight at plants.

We said at the time that the plant would be subjected to numerous hours of inspections above the normal level as a consequence of the change. While all of the specific details of the increased oversight are not yet in place, we’ve notified the plant’s owner, Entergy, that the inspection process would entail three phases.

Phase “A” of the 95003 process – that number refers to an inspection procedure for plants in Column 4 — is scheduled to occur this week. It will involve a review of various aspects of the plant’s corrective action program, with a specific focus on older items that were in need of attention. A plant’s corrective action program serves the vital purpose of ensuring problems are addressed in a timely manner, and we want to ensure items entered into it were, in fact, appropriately dispositioned.

The objective will be to determine if continued operation is acceptable and whether additional regulatory actions are required to arrest declining performance.

Current plans call for Phase “B” to be carried out during the week of April 4. During that phase, the NRC will evaluate the overall performance of the plant’s corrective action program since a problem identification and resolution inspection was completed there last August. In other words, this phase will be keyed to more recent corrective actions, particularly since the plant entered Column 4.

Each of those phases will be performed by three inspectors from the NRC’s Region I Office in King of Prussia, Pa.

Based on the results of those first two phases, the NRC will develop a plan for, and map out the scope of, Phase “C.” It will cover items not inspected during the first two phases and include an assessment of the plant’s safety culture and such areas as human performance, equipment reliability and procedure quality.

What’s more, the inspectors will review the work done as part of the plant’s performance improvement plan. That plan is due to be submitted to the NRC sometime in mid-2016.

This final phase will be the most comprehensive of the three and will seek to inform the agency’s decision on whether sufficient progress has been made to end the agency’s increased oversight of the facility. The timeframe for that review will be available later this year.

Another step will be the NRC’s issuance of a Confirmatory Action Letter to Pilgrim that will spell out actions needed for the plant to satisfy any remaining safety concerns. The agency will subsequently inspect the company’s follow-through on those commitments.

It should be noted that the NRC has not waited until now to increase its oversight at Pilgrim following the decision last September. The agency has already performed focused inspections at the plant, in such areas as operator performance, preparations for adverse weather, and problem identification and resolution.

In addition, the NRC has added a third Resident Inspector – there are normally two — assigned to Pilgrim since November.

Even though Entergy has announced that Pilgrim will be shutting down no later than June 2019, the NRC remains committed to our safety oversight, with these inspections helping to inform our determinations.

We also remain committed to communicating to the public regarding our oversight activities at Pilgrim as they advance. That information will be made available via this blog, our web site and in correspondence. Stay tuned.



Considering Plant Circumstances for Post-Fukushima Requirements

Lauren Gibson
Project Manager
Japan Lessons-Learned Division

When the NRC establishes a new requirement or asks its licensees for information, the agency sets appropriate deadlines. Plants usually meet those deadlines, but sometimes there are complications and a licensee needs more time than was originally anticipated.

The NRC established such deadlines for its post-Fukushima actions and, in some cases, licensees have asked for more time to complete the work. For instance, a plant might need information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish reevaluating its flooding hazard.

JLD vertical CWhat happens if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still working on that information as the NRC’s deadline approaches? Another plant might be nearing compliance with all aspects of the Mitigating Strategies Order, but unforeseen prolonged and severe winter weather causes construction delays with the equipment storage building.

Other plants have announced that they will be shutting down in a few years, but after some deadlines for Fukushima-related work will have passed. What do all these plants do? They formally ask the NRC to revise the plant’s deadlines or relieve the plant of its requirement.

The NRC considers many things when reviewing these schedule change requests, including:

  • Has the plant adequately justified its request?
  • Is the amount of extra time requested reasonable?
  • How will the plant continue to ensure safety in the period between the initial and proposed due dates?

If a licensee does not provide enough information for the NRC to make a decision, it will either request additional information from the licensee or deny the request. The NRC takes extension requests very seriously and ensures that each is thoroughly reviewed – by project managers, technical experts, NRC lawyers and enforcement experts, and NRC management (in some cases, up to the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation).

Plants that are permanently shutting down have other options. Depending on the timing of their shutdown, they may request that NRC orders requiring certain actions be cancelled or rescinded for them. The NRC will only rescind an order after the plant has certified it has permanently ceased operations and is no longer an operating reactor. This ensures the requirements stay in place if the plant later decides to keep operating.

Plants can also ask to delay certain work on the orders, which was the case for the recently-approved Oyster Creek relaxation request. The delay is not indefinite, though. If Oyster Creek does not shut down as planned, it must complete the work by a specified date.

Plants would follow a similar process to ask for schedule relaxations on the information requests (for example, the Vermont Yankee licensee requested to be relieved of responding to the request once the plant was shut down).

All of these requests get plenty of NRC review time. The NRC staff carefully considers each request on a plant-specific basis, and the NRC would only approve a relaxation request if a licensee provides good justification and demonstrates that safety would be maintained if the request were approved.

Even with the limited number of relaxation requests approved by the NRC, the industry is well on its way to appropriately implementing all post-Fukushima safety enhancements.



NRC Keeping an Eye on Water Levels along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer, Region IV

Heavy rains and subsequent flooding across America’s heartland are being carefully watched by the NRC and the operators of nuclear power plants located along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, although none of the plants are expected to be adversely affected.

Flooding is one of the many natural hazards that nuclear power plants must be prepared for. As a condition of their operating license, every nuclear power plant must demonstrate the ability to withstand extreme flooding and shut down safely if necessary – requirements that have been updated and strengthened following the Fukushima accident in 2011.

arkansasAccording to the National Weather Service, the threat of significant flooding is expected to persist for another two weeks in parts of Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana – all states with operating nuclear power plants. Each of these plants has emergency diesel generators that can supply backup power for key safety systems if off-site power is lost. And all plants have robust designs with redundancy in key components housed in buildings with watertight doors.

In Nebraska, water levels are high along the Missouri River in the vicinity of Fort Calhoun and Cooper Nuclear Station, but not high enough to require any mitigating actions by plant operators.

In Missouri, the Callaway plant is not expected to be affected by any of the heavy rains and flooding that have plagued other parts of the state.

Arkansas Nuclear One, in Russellville, has not been affected by heavy rains and no impact is predicted. But some local roads that lead to evacuation routes were flooded, prompting local law enforcement officials to post detour signs.

At Grand Gulf in Mississippi, levels on the Mississippi River continue to rise, with a crest expected on January 15. The projected river levels, however, are not expected to have any effect on site operations.

At River Bend in Louisiana, the situation is similar. There, the Mississippi River level is expected to peak on January 18, at a level that will not affect site operations. Further downstream, levels on the Mississippi River near the Waterford nuclear plant are expected to crest at a level two feet below where the operator would need to take some actions at the site.

Walkdowns (3)Richard Smith, the Acting Chief of Region IV’s Response Coordination Branch, said his staff is getting periodic updates from the National Weather Service on conditions that might affect any of the region’s nuclear plants. Additionally, the NRC is relying on its resident inspectors, who live in the communities near the plants where they work each day, to independently verify that precautionary flooding procedures taken by plant operators are being properly implemented.

“We’re following events closely here in the Region,” Smith said, “and if anything changes significantly our on-site inspectors will be able to confirm that the operators are taking appropriate protective actions.”


Guiding Our Reviews of Subsequent License Renewal

Albert Wong
Division of License Renewal
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The NRC has recently published two draft documents intended to guide the staff’s review of “subsequent license renewal” applications – renewals that would allow commercial nuclear power plants to operate beyond 60 years. We’ll use public comments we receive on these to develop final guidance as we prepare to receive the first “SLR” application sometime in 2019.

NUREG-2192As we discussed in an earlier blog post, the NRC licenses plants to operate for 40 years, and the licenses can be renewed for up to 20 years at a time. To date, the agency has renewed the licenses of 81 reactors (two of which have since permanently shut down).

As industry looks to operate some plants beyond 60 years, we’re getting ready to assess the particular challenges to keeping the plants safe. That’s where these draft guidance documents come in.

The documents address material aging and degradation a plant’s structures, systems and components may experience when operating more than 60 years. They also detail aging management programs acceptable to the NRC for licensees to use during the subsequent license renewal period. They incorporate lessons learned and knowledge gained by the staff from recent plant operating experience and previous license renewal reviews.

Long-term operation research sponsored by the NRC, the Electric Power Research Institute, the Department of Energy’s national laboratories and international organizations also informs the guidance.

Public comments on the draft guidance documents will be accepted through February 29. The staff will hold public meetings at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md., on January 21, January 22 and February 23 to present the reports and receive comments. The final documents should be published by mid-2017.

The draft reports are available on the NRC’s License Renewal Guidance webpage.

NOTE: Comments posted here will NOT be considered public comments on the draft guidance documents. To have your comments considered by the staff as it develops the final guidance documents, please use the federal government’s rulemaking website www.regulations.gov, using Docket ID NRC-2015-0251. Comments may also be mailed to Cindy Bladey, Office of Administration, Mail Stop:  OWFN-12-H08, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. Comments are accepted through February 29, 2016.

Mothballed Nuclear Plant Provides Fresh Training Perspective

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

Few are aware that Nuclear Regulatory Commission instructors regularly teach basic reactor concepts while conducting tours at a mothballed nuclear plant site in Hollywood.

The Bellefonte site

The Bellefonte site

That’s Hollywood, Ala., by the way, and there’s no show biz connection.

Instructors at the NRC’s Technical Training Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., realized a few years ago that the two-unit, never-completed Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, just 65 miles away, would be a perfect classroom. Even though many of the major components were either taken out or cut apart and then sold by the plant’s owners, the Tennessee Valley Authority, enough of the framework remains to allow students to get an extremely realistic idea of what a plant is like and how it works. TVA and the NRC signed a memorandum of understanding to allow the training to take place.

Since Bellefonte never had a fuel load, even containment and the empty spent fuel pools are open for official visitors.

“You can even eat inside containment,” Doug Simpkins, a TTC instructor, quipped to a unique class last week.

Instructors Simpkins and Mark Speck, both former resident inspectors in Region II, regularly teach a five-day course at Bellefonte, called Practical Applications of Reactor Technology as well as a separate Site Tour of Bellefonte course. They expanded the curriculum last month when John Pelchat, Region II’s government liaison officer, approached them with the idea of a customized course for personnel from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. That agency’s newly appointed head, Art Faulkner, wanted his people to learn how a nuclear plant works but preferred a shorter class.

Since Alabama has five operating commercial units, three at Browns Ferry near Huntsville and two at Farley near Dothan, preparation for a possible event is essential.

Representatives from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency listen to an NRC instructor at Bellefonte.

Representatives from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency listen to an NRC instructor at Bellefonte.

“Now they are going to have a mental picture,” said Faulkner during the two-day course that saw him and 19 of his lieutenants trooping through the sprawling plant with Simpkins and Speck. “During an event or an exercise, they are going to have a better idea of what’s going on at a plant.”

Brett Howard, the AEMA’s director of field operations, offered a graphic example of the value of the NRC training.

“We had an alert declared at Plant Farley due to a [malfunctioning] muffler coming off a diesel generator,” he said. “You think of a generator as being pretty small. Now we can see from these generators here that a muffler is as big as a sewer pipe. No wonder it took all day. It puts it in perspective.”

Faulkner was very pleased with the experience and urged his colleagues from other states to consider booking time with the NRC instructors, who also provide a look at how NRC inspectors do their jobs.

“Bar none, this is the most informative and best training we’ve done,” he said. “I believe it will enable us to better operate in the unlikely event we have an incident.”


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