U.S. NRC Blog

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Heeding the Sirens – Despite A Few Mishaps

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

sirenResidents of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, who live within the 10-mile emergency planning zone for the Waterford 3 nuclear plant, got an unexpected benefit last week when 37 emergency sirens were sounded for a tornado warning.

St. John Parish is similarly protected by 36 sirens. But thousands of other residents who live in surrounding parishes have no sirens.

The reason: The NRC and FEMA work together to make sure the commercial nuclear power plants in this country have sirens around their sites to alert the public in the event of a serious incident. Various federal, state and local agencies also have emergency notification systems they can use to alert the public to a variety of emergencies — including one at a nuclear plant.

“The people of St. Charles Parrish got the benefit of the emergency sirens that surround Waterford 3,” said Ron Perry, the Director of Emergency Preparedness for Homeland Security in St. Charles Parish.

Each nuclear plant is required to exercise its emergency plan with offsite authorities at least once every two years – which includes checking the siren systems. This helps make sure the plant operator, and state and local authorities, can implement their emergency plans if needed. If all goes according to plan, the interface among all these agencies is seamless.

But things do not always go as planned.

Last year, while preparing for an upcoming emergency exercise at the plant, the National Weather Service inadvertently alerted the public around the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Neb., of an unspecified emergency at the plant. The weather service was updating the wording of messages stored in a computer system when someone pushed the wrong button. This sent an advisory to various news media organizations and some members of the public.

The weather service quickly realized what happened and sent a message explaining the error to the media 13 minutes later. But, the mishap received plenty of news coverage.

Unfortunately, this was the second recent incident about emergencies at the Cooper nuclear plant. On July 24, Nebraska Public Power District workers were working on a computer system that controls sirens in Nemaha County when a false alarm was broadcast.

There have been two other similar incidents at Region IV nuclear plants in recent memory:

Last summer, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. workers were upgrading their siren system around Diablo Canyon when they inadvertently activated one at 3:30 in the afternoon. It sounded continuously for 14 minutes before workers were able to deactivate it remotely. It took 10 minutes before county officials sent out an advisory noting the error. Some people vented their anger about all the confusion on the county’s Facebook page, and several local TV stations and the Associated Press carried reports about the incident.

sirenNot a week later, something similar happened in Washington State. During a training class at the state Emergency Operations Center, a staffer inadvertently faxed a partially filled out form for an Alert (the second lowest level of nuclear emergency) at Columbia Generating Station. The fax went to nine different emergency management agencies, including one in Canada. A second fax was quickly sent out correcting the error.

The NRC is primarily concerned with the reliability of sirens. The NRC tracks the performance of licensee alert and notification systems by measuring the number of successful siren tests conducted quarterly at each plant. These types of incidents are embarrassing to all involved and in each instance corrective actions have been taken to minimize the chance of future mishaps.

But the bottom line is that residents in the communities around nuclear power plants need to heed the warning, and trust the emergency alert systems. A few false alarms should not change their response. If you hear a siren, or get a text message on your phone announcing an emergency, please heed the warning.

The NRC Celebrates Public Service Recognition Week

PSRW_logo_300x134Public Service Recognition Week has been celebrated the first week of May since 1985. It’s a time set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as federal, state, county and local government employees. In honor of this week, we bring you a Q&A with Dan Dorman. He is representative of the more than 3,000 employees of the NRC who are dedicated to their job – and good at what they do.

Q. What does your job entail and how long have you been in federal service?

A. I am the Regional Administrator for NRC’s Region I office in Pennsylvania. We oversee safety and security at 25 nuclear reactors in the Northeast and more than 900 nuclear materials licensees in the eastern United States. I’ve been with the NRC for 24 years in various roles, most recently as deputy director of the operating reactors office in headquarters and before that as deputy director of the nuclear materials office.  Over the years, I’ve served in reactor licensing and oversight, engineering research, nuclear security, and fuel facility licensing and oversight. Before joining the NRC in 1991, I served as a nuclear submarine officer in the U.S. Navy for almost a decade.

Q. Why did you decide to go into federal government service?

A. My degree is in naval architecture and marine engineering; I joined the Navy out of college to get operational experience that I felt would enhance my skills. I left the Navy for work-life balance and came to the NRC to apply the nuclear power knowledge and skills that I had gained through my Navy service.

Dan Dorman

Dan Dorman

Q. Over the years , what has kept you interested in your job and willing to stay in federal service?

A. When I first came to the NRC, I had no intention of staying this long. The main reasons I have are the mission and the people. During the first decade I was at the NRC, the agency reduced from roughly 3300 to 2700 staff and opportunities for promotion were rare, but as I got engaged in our public health and safety mission and came to realize the caliber and engagement of the people I was working with, my sense of family and dedication to the mission made my career choice clear.

Q. What would you consider to be one of your greatest challenges while working for the NRC?

A. I have become fascinated with people (which is a big deal for an engineer!). A lot of times our biggest challenges are working with people who have shared goals (e.g., public health and safety, common defense and security) but differing visions of how best to achieve those goals. Working security and incident response issues with other federal agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and working with international counterparts to enhance nuclear safety worldwide following the Fukushima accident are great examples. We all have a passion to make it better, but the hard work is in listening to each other’s ideas and not jumping ahead to drive to your own preconceived conclusions. In the end, if we can hear each other out, we end up with a stronger and more sustainable path forward.

Q. What would you consider to be one of your greatest work accomplishments?

A. It was a tremendous privilege to be part of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima lessons learned in 2011. The team we put together had tremendous diversity of experience and perspective. In 90 days we had time to engage senior NRC staff to explore a broad range of issues arising from the accident even as news continued to come in daily from Japan. We did not have time or the tasking for public engagement. Still, we produced a report and recommended actions that have stood the test of time. The most important safety improvements have already been completed at many nuclear power plants and will be completed at all of them by the end of next year, and our recommendations have served as a model for other nuclear safety regulators all over the world.

Q. What would you like the public to know about federal employees, that perhaps they don’t know?

A. We are your neighbors and active participants in your community. The people I work with have exceptional skills and experience and are highly motivated by our mission to protect people and the environment. We’re also active members of our communities, giving back in many ways well beyond our jobs. We give generously to help those less fortunate, we organize blood drives, we do outreach in our schools to help encourage our young people to develop their skills and be engaged citizens. Beyond our careers and our mission, we are working every day to make the world a better place, now and for the future.

The NRC Blog – Its First Four Years

Eliot Brenner
Public Affairs Director

Four years ago, just six weeks before the nuclear accident at Fukushima, the NRC initiated this blog. As we said at the time: the blog is intended to serve as a vehicle for informing, explaining and clarifying the actions, roles and responsibilities of the NRC, raising awareness about our agency and its mission, and – most importantly – giving us another opportunity to hear from you.

Blog button medWe believe the blog has served that purpose well. In the past four years, we have published some 540 posts on a wide variety of subjects from tiny jelly fish affecting a nuclear power plant to updates on Hurricane Sandy and posts on nuclear history (some of our most popular posts). Posts have been written by staff throughout the agency and the regions, including the Chairman and Executive Director for Operations, as well as technical staff and public affairs officers. We have strived to model plain language in our blog posts – contrary, perhaps, to some of our official communications – so that these subjects are more readily understood by the public, for whom the blog is intended.

We have also found the blog to be a lively source of comments. Some 4,800 comments have been approved and posted in the past four years. A quick review of the comments reflects how liberally the NRC applies its blog comment guidelines. At times, though, comments may contain personal attacks, “four-letter-words,” or other violations of our comment policy. When that occurs, we remove that verbiage (and note that) and then post the comment. We also may occasionally move some comments to our Open Forum section if they’ve strayed too far from the original post. Very few of the submitted comments are not posted (with the exception of duplicates).

Over the past four years or so, there have been more than 650,000 views to NRC blog. We’re happy the information is reaching an audience. If you have suggestions for topics for future blog posts, please let us know in the comments below.

I should note that the blog is the oldest but not the only social media platform the NRC uses. We also use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and the photo gallery platform Flickr as well.




Plenty of Progress to Report on Fukushima-related Enhancements

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

fukushimaThe NRC’s technical staff, industry executives and a public interest group will brief the Commissioners Thursday on the agency’s efforts to implement what we’ve learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident. The bottom line is the NRC is ahead of schedule on several fronts.

Some of the best news involves U.S. reactors meeting requirements from two of the NRC’s Fukushima-related Orders issued in March 2012. By the end of this spring, almost a quarter of the U.S. fleet will comply with the Mitigation Strategies and Spent Fuel Pool Instrumentation Orders. We expect more than half the fleet will meet those Orders by the end of December, which is a full year before the Orders’ deadline.

Every U.S. reactor will comply with the instrumentation requirements by the December 2016 deadline. Every reactor will also comply by that time with a major Mitigation Strategies requirement – additional, well-protected onsite portable equipment to support key safety measures if an extreme event disables a plant’s installed systems. The U.S. industry has already set up two response centers with even more equipment that can be transported to any U.S. reactor within 24 hours. By the time we say good-bye to 2016, almost every reactor will also have made all modifications needed to use those portable systems. In preparing to meet the deadlines, U.S. reactors have already enhanced their ability to keep the public safe.

About a dozen plants will have made all those modifications except changes closely related to the third Order, which requires Hardened Vents for reactors with designs similar to those at Fukushima. These vents would safely relieve pressure in an emergency and help other systems pump cooling water into the core. All the reactors subject to the Order have completed plans for the first set of vent enhancements or installation of new vents.

The NRC staff finished reviewing these plans earlier this month, ahead of schedule, and issued written evaluations to each plant. The agency is also about ready to issue guidance on how these plants can meet the second part of the Order, which involves an additional vent or other methods to protect the structure surrounding the reactor.

The staff’s presentation will also cover topics including revising the NRC’s rules in these areas, as well as the ongoing effort to re-evaluate flooding hazards for all U.S. nuclear power plants. The NRC’s regional offices will provide their perspective on the overall implementation effort’s progress.

Droning On Over Nuclear Power Plants

Monika Coflin
Technical Assistant
Division of Security Policy

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news lately. Last fall, unidentified drones breached restricted airspace over 13 of France’s 19 nuclear power plants in a seemingly coordinated fashion. In January, a drone crashed onto the lawn of the White House. And this week, a drone was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

PrintDrones may be fun toys, but they pose a number of concerns. They can be used to conduct surveillance to gather intelligence about facility security. They can also be used to deliver payloads that could include explosives. While the majority of drones currently in use are relatively small, larger ones are becoming available that could possibly deliver payloads capable of causing damage to facilities that are not hardened.

Security experts haven’t yet identified who was responsible for the French flyovers, but with the prices of drones falling and their popularity rising, the potential threat will likely continue to grow.

There are ways to detect and intercept drones, such as jamming radio signals or using helicopters to pursue encroaching drones. Chinese scientists are developing a laser weapon that can detect and shoot down small, low-flying aircraft, and interception drones have the ability to drop nets over intruding drones. However, there are many legal issues that challenge the use of these techniques.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a long-standing “Notice to Airmen” warning pilots not to linger over nuclear power plants. The FAA has also issued guidelines on where users should not fly drones, but the industry is largely unregulated as more companies look to use the relatively new technology in their businesses. The FAA has been working to craft a comprehensive regulatory framework for drones, following calls from Congress and the President, and recently issued draft regulations for the commercial use of drones.

PrintPresident Obama likened the drone industry to cyberspace, which has brought new technologies that U.S. laws are still trying to catch up to.

“These technologies that we’re developing have the capacity to empower individuals in ways that we couldn’t even imagine 10-15 years ago,” the President said, pledging to work to create a framework that “ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.”

Given the evolving nature of technology and the need to balance the threat with the potential benefits of drones, the NRC is actively engaging with the departments of Homeland Security, Energy, and Defense to move this government collaboration effort forward. For example, we have reached out to the FAA to examine available legal and regulatory options, and attended inter-agency meetings to learn about how other agencies are addressing potential impacts from drones.

In addition, NRC will participate in a U.S.-initiated drone working group under the nuclear counterterrorism umbrella with the governments of France and the United Kingdom. The NRC has provided, and will continue to provide, pertinent information on this topic in a timely manner to its licensees to ensure continued safe and secure operations.


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