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REFRESH — Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job

John Munro
Senior Reactor Engineer

 

refresh leafAt first glance, the list seems surprising: Among professions that can earn $100,000 a year without a college degree are massage therapists, personal trainers, executive pastry chefs and nuclear reactor operators.

 The list from PayScale.com has been touted in several NBC News reports. These reports stressed that all of the professions required extensive training and certification as well as years of experience before anyone could expect a six-figure salary. But what does that mean specifically for reactor operators?

 The NRC issues two types of licenses to control room personnel qualified to operate a commercial nuclear power plant facility – i.e., the nuclear reactor. These are reactor operators (ROs), responsible for manipulating the controls of nuclear reactors, and senior reactor operators (SROs), who direct the licensed activities of ROs. Applicants for an RO license must have at least three years of power plant experience, including at least six months at the plant where they are currently employed (and seek a license) and at least six months as a non-licensed operator. SRO applicants also must have at least 18 months experience as a qualified non-licensed operator or as a plant staff engineer or manager involved in the daily activities associated with operating a commercial nuclear power plant facility also including at least six months experience at the plant where they are currently employed.

RO candidates are not required to have a college degree, as long as they have the necessary experience and training. A college degree in engineering, engineering technology, or related sciences is typically required for anyone testing directly for an SRO license – with the exception that with at least one a year of active experience as a RO at a commercial power reactor facility of the same vendor and vintage they may take the SRO exam, whether or not they have a college degree.

Applicants for both licenses must complete rigorous training provided by the facility licensee (utility) before taking the NRC’s hours-long written examination and operating test. Once licensed, there are continuing training requirements per the facility’s NRC-approved requalification training program. ROs and SROs must pass a facility-administered operating test every year and a written examination every two years to maintain their license status.

ap1000_controlSome of these experience requirements can be met through military service – in general, an applicant can receive six months credit for every year’s experience working at a military propulsion plant such as a nuclear-powered warship. It’s also important to note that reactor operators work for the commercial nuclear power plant owners, not the NRC, although it’s the NRC license that makes them eligible to do the job.

The licensing process for reactor operators is described in detail on the NRC website.

So while you don’t need a B.S. in Physics or a B.E. in Nuclear Engineering, to become a licensed nuclear reactor operator, you do have to meet extremely tough standards in experience and knowledge before being able to take the controls of a nuclear power plant as an RO or SRO.

REFERESH is an occasional series where we re-run previous blog posts. This originally ran on Nov. 14, 2012.

Preparing Shut Down Plants for Decommissioning

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer
 
Vermont Yankee

Vermont Yankee

Four commercial nuclear reactors – Kewaunee, Crystal River 3, and San Onofre 2 and 3 – ceased operations in 2013. A fifth, Vermont Yankee, is scheduled to close permanently by the end of this year. The NRC staff has taken several steps to transition our oversight of these plants to focus on decommissioning instead of plant operations.

This is the first time NRC has taken these steps since the last wave of nuclear power reactor decommissioning in the late 1990s.

Once the fuel is permanently removed from a shut-down reactor, the types of possible accidents are significantly fewer, and the risk of an offsite release of radioactivity significantly lower, than when the reactor was operating. A plant owner therefore may request exemptions to the regulations or amendments to its license based on site-specific analyses of the permanently shut-down and defueled reactor.   The NRC closely reviews each exemption request to ensure that public health and safety are adequately maintained and the common defense and security is assured as the plant transitions from operations to decommissioning.  Some recent actions:

  • Dominion Energy Kewaunee requested – and the NRC has approved — exemptions from the NRC’s emergency planning requirements to reflect the reduced risk of accidents. The plant will maintain an onsite emergency plan and response capabilities, including notification of local government officials of an emergency declaration. State and local authorities may still implement protection measures under their comprehensive emergency management plans. But, because the risk of accidents and offsite release is greatly reduced, Kewaunee will no longer be required to maintain offsite radiological emergency preparedness plans or the 10-mile emergency planning zone. After approving the exemptions on October 27 (ML14261A223), the NRC staff approved license amendments implementing the changes. (ML14279A482)
  • Dominion also requested certain exemptions from NRC’s physical security regulations for Kewaunee. The staff denied this request, however, concluding the company failed to demonstrate the changes would continue to provide adequate protection against radiological sabotage. (ML14282A519)
  • The NRC staff approved Dominion Energy Kewaunee’s training program for “certified fuel handlers,” who will manage plant operations from here on, focusing on spent fuel management and the transfer of spent fuel from the pool to dry casks. This approval was issued May 12. (ML14104A046)
  • An exemption issued May 21 allows Dominion to use some of its decommissioning trust fund to cover expenses of managing the plant’s spent fuel, without requiring NRC approval for each withdrawal from the fund. (ML13337A287). The NRC staff determined this would have no significant environmental impact (an Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact were published in late April), and verified the trust fund contains enough money to cover spent fuel expenses and fully decommission the plant. (A similar exemption was issued July 21 for the Zion plant in Illinois, which has been in decommissioning for several years. ML14030A590)

Crystal River, San Onofre and Vermont Yankee have requested similar exemptions and license amendments. These requests are being reviewed separately to account for individual circumstances at each plant site. But the objectives are the same: to allow plant operators to focus their resources on the important task of preparing the plants for ultimate dismantling, decontamination and decommissioning, while ensuring adequate measures remain in place to protect public health and safety and the common defense and security.

Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Watts Bar Special Projects Branch
 

Unit 1 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., has a claim to fame as the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century. Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority aspires to have its sister reactor (Watts Bar Unit 2) make its own historic claim.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

If the NRC concludes that the reactor is safe to operate and approves its operating license next year, Watts Bar Unit 2 could become the first new commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in the 21st century.

To understand a little of the history of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, let’s rewind to a time when Schoolhouse Rock premiered and the first mobile phone call was made in New York City — a time predating the NRC. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlighted construction of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 under the “two-step licensing process,” where construction permits and operating licenses were issued separately.

In 1985, construction quality issues at its plants caused TVA to stop work at both Watts Bar Units. Eventually, TVA resolved the issues and completed construction of Unit 1, and the NRC issued its operating license in 1996.

Fast-forward to more recent activities. TVA decided in 2007 to reboot the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction and licensing process. They submitted an update to their original license application to the NRC in 2009.

Other recent applicants have elected to use the combined license application process, where we issue a single license to both construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. However, because of the unique history of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA chose to continue under the two-step licensing process. So, NRC staff developed a regulatory framework and established a licensing approach tailored specifically to the project.

We updated our construction inspection program associated with the two-step licensing process to provide guidance that reflects current NRC practices. For example, the NRC staff identified areas for further inspection at Unit 2 by screening applicable communications, allegations and other open items in the review.

The NRC staff also developed inspection guidance specific to TVA’s refurbishment program, which replaces or refurbishes systems and components at Watts Bar Unit 2. TVA’s resolution of key safety issues and the continued progress of construction inspection activities drive our review schedule.

If the operating license is issued next year, the NRC’s job doesn’t just end. We’d continue to inspect start-up testing required for power ascension and to oversee that Unit 2 transitions into the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process before it can begin producing commercial power.

And, of course, the Resident Inspectors, the agency’s eyes and ears at the plant, would continue to carry out day-to-day inspection work to ensure safety and security is monitored and inspected during licensing and throughout the transition to commercial operation.

For more information about the Watts Bar Unit 2 project, visit the NRC’s website. There will be a Commission briefing Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. on the license application review. You get details about the briefing from the meeting notice. We’ll also do a live webcast.

Making Sure SAFER Resources Are Ready To Go

Jack Davis
Director, Japan Lessons Learned Division
 

mitigation_strategies_infographic_r4Part of the U.S. nuclear power industry’s response to the NRC’s post-Fukushima Mitigation Strategies Order involves emergency equipment centers in Memphis, Tenn., and Phoenix, Ariz. The centers have multiple sets of generators, pumps and other equipment. The centers would send needed equipment to a U.S. nuclear plant to maintain safety functions indefinitely if an event disabled that plant’s installed safety systems.

The NRC’s been reviewing how an industry group, the Strategic Alliance for FLEX Emergency Response (SAFER), can move equipment from the response centers to plants. We observed two demonstrations SAFER ran in July and reviewed SAFER’s equipment, procedures, and deployment strategy. Overall, the NRC staff concludes that having the response centers and the group’s plans and procedures in place will enable plants to comply with the final phase of the Order.

The group has contracted with Federal Express (for both truck and aircraft shipment) to get supplies to a plant within 24 hours of a request. SAFER’s documentation of FedEx’s capabilities included a proven ability to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to get proper access to otherwise restricted airspace in the event that equipment must be flown to a nuclear power plant site. 

One SAFER demonstration sent equipment by road from Memphis to the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. The NRC staff noted some areas for improvement, such as clarifying who’s responsible for unloading equipment at a site or where the equipment’s first tank of fuel will come from. SAFER responded by adding details to its plans and beefing up its training program.

The other demonstration simulated airlift of equipment from Phoenix to the Surry plant in Virginia. After the NRC shared its observations, SAFER gave our staff additional details on how it would obtain helicopters to bring supplies to a plant if area roads are impassable.

 We also reviewed a report on the Memphis center’s test of packing the equipment to efficiently load and fit onto FedEx’s planes. Although the test generated a delivery schedule a few minutes longer than the industry expected, the NRC is satisfied that SAFER has applied lessons learned to streamline its approach and ensure SAFER can meet its own deadlines.

 Our website’s Japan Lessons Learned section can give you more information about the mitigation strategy requirements and related guidance.

Checking the Links in the Nuclear Supply Chain

Mary Anderson
Vendor Inspector
Office of New Reactors

 

The NRC’s focus on nuclear power plant safety doesn’t stop at the plants. Since the 1970s (at that time under the Atomic Energy Commission), NRC inspectors have kept a watch on the companies that provide safety-related components and services to U.S. plants.

 magnifyingglassThe agency believes plants and vendors have effective quality assurance programs in place to proactively prevent the use of counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. These programs include careful supplier selections, effective oversight of sub-suppliers, and the authority to challenge a part’s “pedigree” when necessary. 

The NRC oversees these quality activities by inspecting nuclear power plants and their vendors. Vendor inspection can include site visits to production facilities. We create and share information and guidance for the nuclear industry to improve detection of counterfeit and fraudulently marketed products. We also incorporate this information into our inspection programs. The NRC has yet to see any instance of these items in safety-related systems in U.S. plants, but constant vigilance by the licensees and the NRC is essential to make sure it stays that way.

 These days our Vendor Inspection Center of Expertise operates out of the Office of New Reactors to cover both operating reactors and those under construction. NRC staff experts inspect vendors, and observe when plants audit their suppliers, to determine if the plants are properly overseeing their supply chain. Importantly, the NRC also verifies that the plants and their vendors comply with our quality assurance criteria and our “Part 21” requirements for reporting defects and noncompliance, as well as applicable codes and standards.

 The center’s staff also inspect companies applying for design certificates, early site permits or combined licenses. We check on whether the applicants have effective quality assurance processes and procedures for activities related to their applications.

 Right now, we’re working on several vendor-related issues, including evaluating the industry’s process for safely upgrading commercial products that aren’t specifically made for nuclear applications to be used in some plant systems. Common items such as gaskets, nuts and bolts, and electrical relays could be acceptable for nuclear plant use, for example.

 We’re updating and simplifying Part 21, the NRC regulation that covers counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. We’re also confirming effective controls are in place to prevent such items from making their way into the U.S. safety-system supply chain. We’re clarifying the processes for evaluating and reporting defects, and the acceptance criteria for off-the-shelf commercial products. The Center is developing regulatory guides so plants and vendors better understand these processes.

 The NRC’s vendor workshop in Portland, Ore., gave us a forum to put this issue in the spotlight. Among a range of vendor topics, this year’s workshop included an industry perspective on counterfeit, fraudulent, and suspect items.

 The NRC has also been actively involved with our international partners to address the risk of counterfeit and fraudulent items. We’ve collaborated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency to share best practices and recommend options to strengthen inspection programs and increase information sharing.

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