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Category Archives: Operating Reactors

Looking For Better Ways to Determine Severe Weather Hazards

Thomas Nicholson
Senior Technical Advisor
Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research

 

The NRC staff evaluates flood hazards when we review applications for new nuclear facility sites. In addition, we re-examine flooding at operating nuclear power plants — a result of what we learned from the 2011 tsunami flooding at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan. These evaluations cover a range of flood events including extreme storms that produce intense local rainfall. The NRC works with other federal agencies to better understand events caused by severe weather as we develop ways to better evaluate possible flooding issues at these sites.

weatherBefore the Fukushima event, the NRC staff informed the Federal Subcommittee on Hydrology of the urgent need to update the National Weather Service’s reports for estimating extreme rainfall events. We use these reports as the basis for our flood design and protection studies. As a result, the subcommittee formed a task force and later the Extreme Storm Events Work Group. The work group is looking at the best practices being used to study extreme storms, and developing estimation procedures and guidance.

The Extreme Storm Events Work Group has an impressive membership. In addition to the NRC, it includes the National Weather Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The work group meets monthly to talk about ongoing activities and products federal agencies are developing to help monitor, model and publish rainfall estimates.

Based in large part on the group’s work, we held a three-day workshop last year on probabilistic flood hazard assessment. The workshop brought together more than 250 international experts and included presentations and panel discussions on extreme rainfall events, coastal storm surge flooding, river flooding, tidal waves, flood-induced dam and levee failures, and combined flood events.

More recently, the work group held a workshop at the National Weather Service to define needed extreme storm products for the nation. These products will greatly assist the federal agencies that are moving towards a risk-informed approach for assessing flooding hazards. NRC staff members are benefiting greatly by their interactions with their federal counterparts in the work group.

Nuclear power plants are built to withstand local extreme weather, but we are always learning how safety margins can be improved even more. By working with weather experts in other federal agencies, we can build on what they’re doing and our nuclear power plants will benefit from this collaboration. We can’t stop flooding from happening, but we can make sure the facilities we regulate are prepared to deal with it safely.

Failed Bolts Bedevil a Nuclear Plant

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

 

Truly novel issues are, generally speaking, few and far between at U.S. nuclear power plants. Whether it’s a specific type of pipe that springs a leak or an electrical relay that goes on the fritz, chances are good that the problem has been experienced before somewhere across the nation’s fleet of commercial power reactors during the many decades they have been in operation.

An issue that has drawn attention at the Salem Unit 2 nuclear power plant, a pressurized-water reactor in southern New Jersey, has to do with the failure of small bolts contained in four reactor coolant pumps. The bolts, measuring 1 inch in diameter and 4 inches in length, are used to secure a turning vane inside the pumps.

These pumps stand about 30 feet tall and provide forced flow of coolant, or water, through the reactor to transport heat from the fuel to the steam generators. The steam generators, in turn, make use of that heat by converting it to steam. The steam is then piped to the turbine to spin it and generate electricity.

Salem Bolt imageAs can be seen in the graphic, water is drawn upward through the suction nozzle at the bottom of the pump via an impeller. The turning vane directly above the impeller then redirects the water toward an opening on the side, from which it flows into the reactor vessel.

When a refueling and maintenance outage began at the plant this spring and evaluation and maintenance work got under way, a number of turning vane boltheads were found in piping associated with one of the reactor coolant pumps and in the reactor vessel. (Similar discovery of these boltheads, albeit just a handful of them, had been observed in two prior outages.) Subsequent reviews, which have now included the examination of all of the pumps, have identified dozens of failed or sheared turning vane bolts in all of them.

Each pump has 20 such bolts. (The arrow shows the approximate location of the bolts.) A majority of the failed boltheads, though separated from the bolt shanks, remained in place thanks to mechanical restraints or tack welds.

While this is not a significant safety concern in terms of potentially causing a reactor core damage accident, there are several related operational issues. For one, the boltheads are considered foreign material that could have an adverse impact on reactor coolant system performance if they were to impact key components inside the system. For another, the turning vane could conceivably drop down and come into contact with the impeller and impede or halt its functioning.

The cause of the bolts’ failure remains under review, but one possibility is stress-corrosion cracking. Indeed, the NRC issued Information Notices to the industry in the 1990s regarding this phenomenon.

A 1994 Information Notice put out by the agency was designed to make the industry aware of stress-corrosion cracking that caused turning vane cap screws to fail at the Millstone Unit 3 nuclear power plant. Also, a 1990 Information Notice discussed the failure of turning vane bolts at a foreign reactor.

In a 1995 Information Notice, the NRC made plant owners aware of the loss of integrity for bolt-locking devices in the turning vanes of reactor coolant pumps at the Seabrook nuclear power plant but for a different reason: flow-induced vibrations.

PSEG, the owner and operator of the Salem and Hope Creek plants, will have to not only repair the Salem Unit 2 pumps but evaluate what went wrong. For now, the plant remains out of service while this work is taking place. NRC inspectors and specialists will closely follow these activities.

One area for consideration will be whether the problem could have been avoided based on previously available information.

The NRC Makes a Determination After Last Year’s Crane Collapse

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

 

Last year, the Arkansas Nuclear One facility experienced a tragic incident when a crane collapsed. One person was killed, eight were injured and important plant equipment was damaged. The NRC has now issued two “yellow” inspection findings as a result. The “yellow” means we found substantial safety significance related to the incident.

arkansasWorkers were moving a massive component out of the plant’s turbine building when the incident occurred. Unit 1 was in a refueling outage at the time, with all of the fuel still in the reactor vessel. At the time, Entergy Operations declared a Notice of Unusual Event, the lowest of four emergency classifications used by the NRC, because the crane collapse caused a small explosion inside electrical cabinets. The damaged equipment caused a loss of off-site power. The NRC’s senior resident inspector had driven to the plant to personally survey the damage and monitor the licensee’s response from the plant’s control room.

Here’s why NRC decided the incident had substantial safety significance even though both plants were safely shut down and there was no radiological release or danger to the public: Emergency diesel generators were relied upon for six days to supply power to heat removal systems.

The falling turbine component damaged electrical cables needed to route power from an alternate AC power source to key plant systems at both units. This condition increased risk to the plant because alternate means of providing electrical power to key safety-related systems was not available using installed plant equipment in the event the diesels failed.

Unit 2, which was operating at full power, automatically shut down when a reactor coolant pump tripped due to vibrations caused when the heavy component fell and hit the turbine building floor. Unit 2 never completely lost offsite power, and there was a way to provide it with emergency power using the diesel generators.

The NRC conducted an Augmented Team Inspection. We prepared a detailed chronology of the event, evaluated the licensee actions in response, and assessed what may have contributed to the incident. (Worker safety issues are the responsibility of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which conducted an independent inspection of the incident.)

The NRC determined that the lifting assembly collapse was a result of the licensee’s failure to adequately review the assembly design and to do an appropriate load test.

We held a public meeting in Russellville, Ark., on May 9, 2013, to discuss the team’s initial findings. From its follow-up inspections, the NRC issued a preliminary red finding to Unit 1 and a preliminary yellow finding to Unit 2. These are documented in a March 24 inspection report.

NRC held a regulatory conference with Entergy officials on May 1, and after considering information provided by the licensee determined that “yellow” findings were appropriate to characterize the risk significance of the event for both Unit 1 and 2. The NRC will determine the right level of agency oversight for the facility and notify Entergy officials of the decision in a separate letter.

River Levels on the Rise – The NRC At The Ready

Lara Uselding
Public Affairs Officer
Region IV
 

NEW UPDATE: Currently, river levels are at 1000 feet 6 inches with levels not expected to increase more than a few inches over the next 24 hours. OPPD is returning the plant to full power. NRC inspectors provided around the clock coverage through last weekend and the agency will continue closely monitoring plant operations and river conditions.

UPDATE: Fort Calhoun began decreasing power at midnight, and is currently holding at a reduced power level. The river level is now predicted to crest at 1,002.4 feet on Saturday, which is lower than previously predicted. For comparison, the 2011 flood peaked at about 1,007 feet. Three people from Region IV will begin around the clock coverage today in support of the resident inspectors.

Three years ago this month marks the anniversary of the record Missouri river floods. Now, due to heavy rains, the NRC is once again watching rising Missouri River levels impacting Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant,  north of Omaha.

Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville is not anticipating a major impact this weekend.

Fort Calhoun’s procedure requires them to declare a Notice of Unusual Event and be shut down by the time river levels at the site reach 1,004 feet mean sea level. Thursday afternoon, river levels were at 998 and rising. Normally, river levels at the site range from 980 to 990 feet mean sea level.

Over the past week, NRC’s Region IV in Arlington, Texas, has been engaged in routine calls with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, states, and local response organizations to understand changes in the predicted river levels and assess potential impacts on the plants. 

Simultaneously, the NRC has been overseeing actions that Omaha Public Power District (Fort Calhoun) and Nebraska Public Power District (Cooper) are taking to protect the plant against impending flood waters. At this time, river levels at Cooper are not projected to be high enough to require a plant shutdown.

OPPD’s actions involve the use of sand bags, flood doors, and readying mobile pumps as river levels are projected to rise. They have also ordered equipment to protect certain buildings on site. NRC resident inspectors, who live in the area and work at the plant, have been monitoring the flood preparations.

The NRC is sending more staff to the plant to support the resident inspectors and provide around the clock coverage. During the 2011 flood, river levels at Fort Calhoun reached about 1007 feet and the plant remained in a safe shutdown condition. The plant restarted late last year only after extensive flooding improvements and other safety upgrades mandated by the NRC. Fort Calhoun remains under increased NRC regulatory oversight.

Region IV will continue monitoring the situation for both plants over the weekend.

 

 

Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of Dam Safety

Ken Karwoski
Dam Safety Officer

 

damWhile the NRC’s authority is limited to nuclear power plants and other civilian uses of nuclear material, dams play a role in what we regulate. Hydroelectric dams, for example, have supplied backup power for at least one reactor. A few reactors are downstream from various kinds of dams, so keeping the dams safe also helps keep the reactors safe.

We do our part in all this by participating in the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety. The federal government founded the committee in 1980 to help create and maintain effective programs, policies, and guidelines to enhance dam safety and security. FEMA chairs the committee.

The NRC has lots of company on the committee. Other members include:

  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • Agricultural Research Service
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Forest Service
  • Department of Energy
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  • Tennessee Valley Authority

We meet formally at least once every three months to discuss dam safety issues, but committee members work together on issues whenever necessary. For example, the NRC works regularly with FERC to inspect safety-related water retention ponds at a handful of reactor sites and evaporation ponds at two uranium mills. Other interactions included sharing operating experience and research results.

A typical committee meeting involves members providing updates on major dam safety topics, such as proposed changes to federal guidelines or new training. The other members, including the NRC, provide advice and feedback that reflects each organization’s perspective. 

The NRC worked with other committee members related to the flooding hazard re-evaluations all U.S. nuclear power plants have been working on since March 2012, as directed by the NRC following the accident at Fukushima. We asked committee members to review parts of the re-evaluation guidance related to dam failures. The NRC incorporated the committee’s input into the final guidance to nuclear plants.

We’ll continue to discuss the flooding re-evaluation process, including the results where appropriate, as part of the dam safety committee’s ongoing work.

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