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On the Wild Side at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

Examples abound of the ways in which nature abhors a vacuum. Raptors will set up shop on a skyscraper ledge, just as they will on a cliff, if it suits their needs. Coyotes have been increasingly spotted in urban settings, even roaming about the streets of Manhattan. Last year, surveillance cameras captured images of a mountain lion strolling the Hollywood Hills after dark.

This falcon is resting on equipment at the TMI nuclear power plant site. Photo courtesy of TMI

This falcon is resting on equipment at the TMI nuclear power plant site. Photo courtesy of TMI

Nuclear power plants are also home to a variety of wildlife. Despite the industrial nature of these facilities, they are usually situated on large tracts of land encompassing hundreds of acres. They are also adjacent to bodies of water in order to tap into that H20 for cooling purposes.

All of that property and access to water can entice a variety of animals and birds to take up residence on the sites. And they do just that.

Information supporting this can be found in the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports (PSDARs) for U.S. nuclear power plants that have ceased operations.

In the report for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which was submitted to the NRC in December 2014, it’s noted that the main emissions stack includes an attached nesting box for peregrine falcons. The box was installed by the company in 2009 at the request of the Audubon Society.

It’s been a rousing success, as according to the report “there have been two consecutive years of four young born and successfully fledged since 2012.”

Current decommissioning plans call for the Vernon, Vt., plant to be placed in storage for several decades prior to the initiation of major dismantlement work. However, when the time comes to remove the stack, the plant’s owner will need to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to removing the nesting box since the peregrine falcon is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Peregrine falcons can also be found at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in central Pennsylvania. The PSDAR for TMI-2, where a severe accident occurred in 1979 and which won’t be taken apart until the neighboring TMI-1 permanently shuts down and is also ready for that work, shows peregrine falcons have nested on the TMI reactor building since 2002.

An osprey can be seen in flight at a nuclear power plant site.

An osprey can be seen in flight at a nuclear power plant site.

Meanwhile, the plant’s meteorological tower, which collects important weather data, has been home to an osprey nest every year since 2004. Ospreys, also referred to as fish hawks (with a wing span from around 5 feet), like to be around water, so it’s not surprising that TMI, situated on the Susquehanna River, is a place they call home.

A variety of wildlife can be found in the vicinity of the Crystal River 3 nuclear power plant, located on the Gulf Coast of Florida. That plant’s PSDAR, which the NRC received in December 2013, identifies the following threatened or endangered species in the vicinity of the site: Two species of fish — Gulf sturgeon and smalltooth sawfish; five species of sea turtles — green turtle, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and loggerhead; one crocodilian species — American alligator; and one marine mammal — Florida manatee.

But on the site itself, only one state-listed threatened species, the bald eagle, and one state-listed endangered species, the wood stork, are found, according to the report. The PSDAR adds that three other species can “potentially occur” on the property: the gopher tortoise, the eastern indigo snake and the piping plover.

In the case of all of these plants and the others around the country, precautions must be taken to minimize the impacts of operations and decommissioning activities on these species and their habitats, consistent with federal and state laws.

Lining Up New Protections with New Flood Info

Lauren K. Gibson
Project Manager
Japan Lessons Learned Division

Walkdowns (3)The NRC is moving forward on connecting two important lessons we learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan: protecting key safety functions and reevaluating flood hazards. The agency’s ongoing work would require U.S. nuclear power plants to ensure their protection strategies account for updated flood levels.

The Commission has approved the staff’s plan for completing the reevaluated flooding hazards review. The staff’s plan also covers how U.S. plants must account for the new hazards in their mitigation strategies for beyond-design-basis events. The plan requires U.S. plants to determine which flood hazard data could affect their strategies. We believe this approach is the quickest way to provide the most significant flood protection improvements.

The NRC assesses plants’ re-evaluated flood hazards to see whether the re-evaluated hazards were properly calculated. Plants need these assessments to evaluate their strategies against the re-evaluated hazard. We’re still reviewing some plants’ work; we’re issuing interim letters so those plants know how to follow the rest of the staff’s plan.

The plants examine whether their strategies work under the new hazard conditions and make any appropriate adjustments. For example, a strategy might require a pump in a location submerged by the new possible flood level. The plant would then consider options such as relocating the pump. These assessments and adjustments would be substantially complete by 2016.

The second part of completing the flooding hazard work involves either a focused evaluation or a broader integrated assessment of the plant’s protection capabilities. The specific work depends on:

  1. Which hazards, if any, cause flood levels higher than the plant’s original level.
  2. Whether the plant’s flood protections have available physical margin. (For example, if the new flood hazard level is six feet and a plant’s existing wall is seven feet tall, the wall has available physical margin to handle the new flood level.)
  3. Whether the higher flooding levels disable the plant’s ability to cool the reactor core or spent fuel pool, or protect containment.

If the local intense precipitation hazard is the only cause of a higher level, then the plant performs a focused evaluation. If other flooding hazards are involved, but the plant has available physical margin and can maintain safety functions, then the plant only needs a focused evaluation. The focused evaluation would identify any physical or procedure changes needed to address the new flood level. We would review and inspect these changes to ensure they resolve the issue.

The remaining plants would perform an integrated assessment, looking at all flooding hazards and identifying any changes needed to protect the plant from the new hazard. We’ll review these assessments and decide if voluntary plant actions would be effective or if the NRC must order plant changes.

You can find out more information about Recommendation 2.1—Flooding on the Japan Lessons Learned portion of the NRC website.

Safeguarding The Nation’s Secrets

Robert L. Norman
Sr. Program Manager, Safeguards Information

sgiAs part of its role in protecting health and safety, the NRC uses information security procedures to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. The NRC puts sensitive information in three categories: classified, Safeguards Information (SGI), and Sensitive Unclassified Non-Safeguards Information (SUNSI).

Each category has specific marking requirements and security procedures. Although the NRC is the only agency with the authority to set requirements for protecting SGI, most agencies have requirements for the protection and designation of unclassified sensitive information.

You’ve probably heard the terms Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential; these are categories of classified information. Each category has a corresponding federal security clearance level needed for access. Executive Orders, Security Classification Guides and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, lay out criteria for protecting information and identifying what nuclear information is classified at a particular level. A breach of classified information could threaten national security.

SUNSI, while generally unavailable to the public, does not require a federal security clearance. This category of information contains various types of information, including Personally Identifiable Information and attorney-client privilege. SUNSI is protected by the Privacy Act, NRC and other federal agency regulations.

While classified information and SUNSI are broad categories, SGI is much narrower. The SGI designation covers the physical protection of nuclear facilities and materials. This includes operating reactors, spent fuel shipments, and radioactive material at certain levels. Nuclear facilities require high security measures. Armed guards, physical barriers, and surveillance systems are just some of the ways we protect nuclear plants. Information about these detailed security measures is carefully guarded. Without SGI protection, people could use this information to attempt to circumvent physical barriers and break into security systems.

sgiSection 147 of the Atomic Energy Act requires the NRC to regulate SGI. The NRC is in charge of deciding what qualifies as SGI and how to protect it. A specially trained group of personnel, called SGI Designators, create and/or check documents for SGI. Even though a federal security clearance isn’t needed for access, SGI is treated similarly to Confidential information. Individuals must pass a background check and have a “need to know” to access SGI.

The use of SGI has often come into question. The Office of the Inspector General conducted an audit in 2004 of the NRC’s protection of SGI. According to the audit, the Confidential classification could protect SGI without seriously affecting costs. However, NRC staff concluded the proposal would require the government to perform thousands of expensive federal security clearances and change how information is stored and encrypted. A switch to a lower designation, such as standard official use only, would put security at risk. Current regulations already protect SGI without breaking the bank.

Another OIG audit revisited the topic in 2012. This audit discussed giving people outside of the NRC and its licensees access to SGI. The OIG recommended setting up a specific plan for granting outsider access. Based on the recommendations, outsiders will still need to undergo background checks and have a “need to know.”

The NRC strives to be as open and transparent as possible. However, when it comes to safeguarding sensitive information for the good of the country, and our licensees, information protection will always take priority over transparency.

NRC — Ready for the 2015 Hurricane Season UPDATED

Update: Due to Hurricane Bill, the South Texas Project nuclear power plant, located near Bay City, Texas, has started tropical storm/hurricane procedures. Actions taken include performing a plant walkdown to secure and tie down anything that could be become a projectile missile or flying debris. The plant operator has implemented restrictions for employees to stay inside if winds get above 40 mph. Today, winds are projected to be sustained at 50 mph with gusts up to 60 mph. Both units are at full power unless winds reach speeds above 75 mph, but that is not expected at this time. They have additional staff onsite and supplies (cots, food, water). The resident inspectors are not evacuating and an additional group of NRC inspectors has been on site and will remain so to back up the residents if need be. (At this time the hurricane is not expected to affect River Bend or Waterford nuclear power plants, but the NRC’s Region IV will continue to monitor the projected path.)

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The hurricane season officially began June 1, but this year the Carolina coast experienced a tropical storm named Ana in early May. While Ana produced winds of more than 60 miles an hour near the Brunswick nuclear plant, there was no major damage. It did, however, serve as an early reminder of the NRC’s role in ensuring nuclear plants remain safe during damaging winds and storm surges.

A hurricane as seen by satellite. Be assured, it's not happening now.

A hurricane as seen by satellite. Be assured, it’s not a current photo and is NOT happening now.

The NRC has years of experience with hurricanes and other severe storms. Nuclear facilities were affected by Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992, by Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, by Sandy along the East Coast in 2012 and by many others. Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts fewer storms this year than the historical average, any storm can be dangerous.

How does the NRC oversee the safety of nuclear plants and other facilities during these storms?

The NRC staff monitors tropical storms as they form, and if the projected path is towards the coast, the agency’s regional offices begin continuous tracking. If a storm’s path shows the possibility of it affecting a nuclear plant or other NRC-licensed facility, the NRC collects more information on the storm and NRC resident inspectors check the plant’s preparations. Depending on the projections, additional NRC inspectors may be dispatched to some nuclear plants.

Around 12 hours before predicted hurricane-force winds, nuclear facilities that may be in the path provide the NRC updates and NRC inspectors monitor the plant staff’s actions. Plant procedures require the plant operators to shut the reactor down if winds greater than a certain speed are expected on the plant site.

Nuclear plants are built to withstand all expected local meteorological events, including hurricanes, and actual storms have shown that plants can safely shut down and with little or no damage to important safety equipment.

The NRC stays in contact with plants and NRC inspectors on site as the storm passes over, and the agency has backup systems if regular communications channels are lost.

Once the storm is over, the NRC and FEMA assess damage and make sure local emergency response organizations can resume their normal roles. If the plant shut down, it will only be restarted after the NRC is satisfied there is no damage to safety equipment and emergency response capabilities have been restored.

Fortunately, most tropical storms and hurricanes do not adversely affect nuclear plants, but the NRC is ready in case one does.

A Focus on NRC Annual Assessment Meetings

Prema Chandrathil
Public Affairs Officer
Region III

formal meetingIt’s Spring – and annual assessment meetings are popping up all over. The NRC holds these important meetings every year for every nuclear power plant to provide information about how the plant performed in the previous year.

What happens at these meetings? If you attend, you can expect to hear about NRC inspection activities, how the plant performed from a safety perspective, and how it met NRC requirements, including if there were any violations and, if so, what actions were taken to correct those issues. You would also hear directly from NRC resident inspectors, who are at the plant on a daily basis and know the plant inside and out. They and other specialists inspect the plant to help ensure protection of the public health and safety.

We just posted a short YouTube Video on the subject today. “Three Minutes with an NRC Expert on the Annual Assessment Meetings” can be found here.
community outreachAs the video underscores, annual assessment meetings are not all the same. There are different types, including a formal meeting, an open house and community outreach event. The most common meeting is a formal meeting where the public is invited to observe the interactions between the NRC and plant staff. Open houses are informal and are designed to encourage one-on-one conversations. An example of a community outreach event is where the NRC would staff a booth at a local event in an effort to talk to more folks. The type of meeting will vary depending on the plant’s performance, community feedback and local interest.

No matter the format of the meeting, the public will have an opportunity to not only hear about the plant’s performance and NRC inspection efforts but also ask questions, make comments and talk to the NRC staff.

A common misconception is that these meetings are transcribed — they are not. The basis for the NRC’s discussion is the annual assessment letters issued by the NRC to individual plants. These letters are documented and publically available. You can find them on the NRC website.

3 minutes with AA_1The NRC continues to reach out in an effort to inform people about what the agency does, how we regulate and how a particular plant is doing in meeting NRC rules and regulations. We are committed to protecting public health and safety, and strive to be open and responsive in these annual assessment meetings.

If you are interested in any upcoming public meeting you can check out the public meeting schedule and review the meeting notice as well as the press release.

We hope you’ll check out the video to learn more.


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