U.S. NRC Blog

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NRC Celebrates A Milestone — 40 Years of Safety and Service

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

It’s been 40 years since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began operations on January 19, 1975. To be sure, the agency inherited a mixed legacy from its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC had established an approach to reactor safety still used today, but critics claimed it worked too closely with the nuclear industry to promote nuclear power. As a new agency, the NRC had to demonstrate that it would be an unbiased, independent regulator.

40yearsOver the years, domestic and international events have challenged the NRC to define what independence meant. A new video on the NRC’s YouTube channel shows us how, in the early years, the essential elements of the NRC’s character were developed and remains today. For example, as the video shows, between 1975 and 1979, the NRC dealt with a major fire at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama,  a controversial request to export uranium to India, staff dissent over reactor safety, and tough questioning of its research conclusions regarding the probabilities of nuclear accidents.

From these experiences, the NRC learned that being an independent safety regulator took more than legislation. It meant cultivating a diverse staff, seeking out dissent and heeding critics. Safety research needed to be conducted free of perceived bias, and it learned the limits within which a regulatory agency may act under the United States’ constitutional separation of powers.

All these lessons have proven to be an asset for the NRC when it dealt with its greatest crisis — the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island; and in learning lessons from watershed nuclear events at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the video.

Pursuit Of Metal Can be Costly, If Not Deadly

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

Copper is a valuable metal that, increasingly in recent years, has been the target of thieves hoping to pocket some quick cash by selling it to scrapyards.

copperPiping made with the material has been stolen from unoccupied homes and businesses. Copper downspouts have been snatched from churches. Even cemeteries have not been immune, as copper flag holders placed at the graves of veterans have been plundered. Cable-TV network CNBC reported in 2013 that copper thefts were ‘like an epidemic’ sweeping the nation.

Unfortunately, the energy sector has not been immune. In early January of this year, the Orlando Sentinel reported that thieves in central Florida had made off with about 42 miles of copper wire.

Non-radioactive copper wire also has been stolen from or close to switchyards located near several U.S. nuclear power plants. (No thefts from the “Protected Area,” or high-security, zone at the plants have occurred, and robust security measures help ensure that should continue to be the case.)

Some examples of the metal pilfering:

  • More than 1,400 pounds of scrap copper were stolen from a storage building near a switchyard at the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in April 2013. The building was located outside the security perimeter at the western Pennsylvania facility. Police subsequently arrested a mother and son in connection with the incident.
  • New York State Police announced in January 2013 that two workers at the Indian Point nuclear power plant had been charged with stealing several thousand pounds of copper and other scrap from the site. Tens of thousands of dollars from the sale of the spools of excess wire were pocketed by the now former employees, police said.
  • In August 2012, police arrested four individuals who made off with copper from multiple electrical substations in the Philadelphia suburbs, including one at the Limerick nuclear power plant. The theft almost cost one of the thieves his life in a near-electrocution.

Between security patrols and other NRC-required measures, U.S. nuclear power plants are among the most fortified parts of the energy infrastructure while switchyards have not been, generally speaking, subject to the same level of security attention. That said, the good news is the utilities that own and operate the switchyards have been taking steps to deter future thefts.

For instance, Con Edison, based in New York, announced last year that it had begun using markings on copper wire only visible under ultraviolet light, making it easier to track where the material originated and thereby identify theft suspects.

Also, Pennsylvania-headquartered PPL, which operates the Susquehanna nuclear power plant, said it was bolstering security measures at substations and notifying scrapyard owners to be on the lookout for large quantities of copper wire that could have been taken from switchyards. Further, FirstEnergy and Ohio Edison said last September that they planned to install security fencing and monitoring systems at some of its substations in an effort to deter metal thieves.

As with all issues that surface at U.S. power reactors, the NRC staff is always made aware when theft incidents occur, and the agency’s security and safety experts would engage plant operators on potential implications and preventive actions.

The sudden loss of power from a nearby switchyard could potentially impact the operations of a nuclear power plant, making it a very bad idea. But it’s also illegal and potentially fatal for the thief. As PPL put it when it rolled out its campaign, “Copper – It’s not to die for.”

 

Improving Our Aim for Consistent Reactor Oversight

Scott Morris
Director, Division of Inspection and Regional Support

Climate, geography and even accent may vary from state to state, but NRC’s regulations don’t, — and neither should our approach to applying them. So when someone suggests we might do a better job in consistently carrying out our mission, we listen carefully and act accordingly. We’ve followed this approach in following up on a September 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

npp3The GAO looked at how our Reactor Oversight Process objectively examines reactor safety based on inspection results and performance statistics. The report said we consistently and accurately respond to significant issues.

The GAO found, however, that the NRC’s four regional offices produced varied results when assessing the least-significant issues, such as improper maintenance for minor electrical transformers at a plant. While this programmatic variation fell short of creating a safety issue, the report recommended we look into this inconsistency.

Staff from our Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation studied the regions’ approach to evaluating the least safety-significant inspection findings. The study also examined regional differences in dealing with “non-escalated enforcement” matters — plants must correct these issues, but they frequently fall short of the criteria for a formal NRC finding.

The staff’s study consisted of conducting “table-top” exercises to see how each region reviewed very low-significance issues. The study listened to resident inspectors at the plants as well as region-based inspectors and their supervisors.

The staff’s study and discussions with regional management and staff, along with some employees at headquarters, led to a few conclusions. First, the staff confirmed the results of the GAO’s review that there are indeed regional differences in implementing some reactor oversight program guidance. Secondly, the NRC’s guidance could benefit from some clarification to help the inspectors when it comes to evaluating very-low-significance issues. Finally, the agency’s annual self-assessments of the entire oversight process to date have been focused on dealing with significant issues, so the assessments didn’t consider or evaluate the regional differences with the least safety-significant inspection findings. This meant the inconsistencies went on longer than they otherwise might have.

The staff’s study looked at potential causes for the varying regional approaches. One area showed the agency devotes a lot of effort to training but that training and knowledge management results weren’t always shared as widely as possible. This meant that potential inconsistencies in training across regions should be addressed. The staff’s study saw no connection between inspector experience and the regional differences.

The staff’s study showed that the NRC can improve its objectivity and predictability in dealing with very-low-significance inspection findings. Management in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation will consider changes that include enhancing review procedures, standardizing inspector training and revising the self-assessment process.

Documenting a Sobering Trip to Fukushima

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Reflections on FukushimaAs we mentioned on the blog last year, senior NRC leaders visited the site of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the surrounding area. Now, the agency has published a report that includes essays on what the team members learned. The report helps ensure current and future NRC staff can benefit from the team’s experience in the future.

The group included managers from the agency’s reactor oversight, research and emergency preparedness programs. They make up most of the agency’s Fukushima Steering Committee, which guides the staff’s implementation of what we learned from the accident. They also take active roles in ensuring U.S. nuclear power plants are prepared to deal with events similar to what happened at Fukushima experienced.

It’s clear from the team members’ essays that the visit affected them deeply. For example, Bill Dean (now director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation) was Administrator of the NRC’s Region I office outside Philadelphia when he took part in the trip. “Most importantly, it enabled us to observe firsthand the far-reaching impacts of a nuclear disaster—not only its physical effects on the facility and the surrounding countryside but also its impact on a nation’s psyche and its people,” Dean writes. “What resonated with each and every one of us is that we cannot allow a Fukushima-like event to occur in the United States.”

Marc Dapas, Adminstrator of the Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, reflects on discussing the accident with plant staff at Fukushima. “Hearing these TEPCO employees describe what they faced and then seeing the actual physical configuration of equipment at the Fukushima sites left an indelible impression on me regarding the importance of being prepared for the unexpected,” Depas writes. “In that context, I considered the safety measures and enhancements that the NRC has required … The key in my view is to ensure that these safety measures are rigorously implemented and maintained.”

The team’s visit covered both the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, which safely withstood the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The visit also covered Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, a nuclear power plant on Japan’s west coast that survived a strong 2007 earthquake.

You can read the essays from Dean and the other trip participants in the report, and you watch a summary video about the trip on the NRC’s YouTube channel.

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