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Keeping Tabs on Diablo Canyon’s Evolving Seismic Situation

Lara Uselding
Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

diabloThe NRC has added two items to the growing list of documents on seismic issues related to the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, near San Luis Obispo, Calif. Our Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, sent the plant operator, PG&E, an inspection report and our headquarters Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation in Rockville, Md. sent PG&E a letter about the plant’s seismic hazard reevaluation due in March 2015.

The Region IV inspection report discusses the agency’s independent assessment of the operability determination completed by PG&E associated with its September report on the Shoreline and other faults near the plant. PG&E provided the report to the state under California Assembly Bill 1632. That bill required the report so the California Energy Commission could assess if California’s largest baseload power plants are vulnerable to a seismic event as those plants age.

The NRC did not request this analysis, but PG&E committed to keep us updated on any new information that would indicate the Shoreline fault is more energetic or capable than was presented in the January 2011 Shoreline Fault Report. PG&E further committed to provide the NRC with an interim analysis of any new Shoreline-related information before the post-Fukushima evaluations are due in March 2015.

Our regional review of PG&E’s operability determination indicates there is considerable design margin for the plant’s systems, structure, and components. The staff did not identify any concerns with PG&E’s determination that the plant is operable. The analysis adds to the evidence that the plant’s systems, structures, and components would function properly after an earthquake and not pose undue risk to public health and safety.

Our letter from headquarters confirms PG&E will incorporate the September report’s findings into its ongoing, post-Fukushima, full seismic re-analysis due in March 2015. The NRC believes this more rigorous analysis will provide the most accurate assessment of faults affecting the site.

The bottom line is that the effect of earthquakes has been extensively evaluated during the construction, licensing, and operation of the plant. Diablo Canyon’s systems, structures, and components are designed to withstand the area’s earthquakes and perform their safety functions.

Sixty-Plus Years of Reactor Safety Advice — and Still Going Strong

Ed Hackett
Executive Director
Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards

For as long as the United States has worked on commercial nuclear power plants, a group of experts has given regulators independent safety advice. Since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the group’s been called the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards.

The committee’s dozen or so members contribute decades of academic and/or practical experience in their specialties, which include risk assessment, health physics, accident analysis and several types of engineering. Past and present committee members have also lent their expertise to international regulators.

Members of the ACRS brief the NRC Commission.

Members of the ACRS brief the NRC Commission.

When there’s an opening on the committee, the Commission chooses a replacement from nominees among the leading experts in a given specialty. Committee members are supported by a small group of NRC staff who focus solely on the committee’s independent activities.

The full committee meets 10 times a year, spending several days each time to discuss a broad range of topics. For instance, this month’s meeting agenda included a developing new rule related to safety enhancements based on lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident. Other meetings have covered reviews of new reactor licensing topics and operating reactor license renewal, as well as proposed facilities to create radioactive material for medical uses.

Committee members ask detailed questions of both NRC staff and industry representatives. If members feel an issue needs more explanation or analysis, they’ll keep asking questions and challenging assumptions until they’re satisfied. All of this interaction contributes to the committee’s opinions on the topics.

The committee’s conclusions, which are independent of the NRC staff’s work, are provided in formal letters to the NRC’s Chairman. The Commission takes the committee’s views into account when it considers licensing or policy matters. The committee also meets publicly with the Commission at least once a year to discuss major topics. The Commission uses the advice provided by the committee, in addition to the information provided by the NRC staff, in reaching its decisions on regulatory matters.

The committee also has an obligation to advise the U.S. Navy on its nuclear reactor program, as well as the Defense Nuclear Safety Board, which deals with Department of Energy-controlled facilities.

The committee does all of this work according to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. This means all committee meetings are public, except when discussing sensitive information the NRC needs to protect. It also means the public can speak and present information to the committee. Keep an eye on our schedule to see when we’ll discuss something you’re interested in. Also, see our YouTube videeo on the ACRS.

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.

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