U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Why Does The NRC Have an Official Historian?

Historial photo of President Carter

Historical photo

As the relatively new historian for the NRC, I am interested in blogging so I can talk directly with the public about the history of nuclear power regulation. In this first post, I’ll introduce you to the agency’s history program, give a little of my background, and offer my plans for future posts.

Established in 1977, the NRC’s history program is almost as old as the agency itself. Many federal agencies employ historians for a variety of archival and public outreach tasks, but the NRC set itself apart by committing its historians primarily to research and writing accurate, scholarly histories of the agency and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

To meet the standards of the history profession, the Commission made it clear early on that its historians were to “be free to express scholarly opinions.” It is a commitment that has worked well. Under my predecessor, J. Samuel Walker, the history program produced numerous well-regarded articles and five books, including a widely popular account of the Three Mile Island accident.

The NRC historian also provides historical background for reports, responds to Commissioner, staff, and public inquiries, and is available for public presentations on agency history.

Although new to the position, I’m not new to history or nuclear power. After receiving my B.S. in mechanical engineering, I tested nuclear reactors on submarines for General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, and worked as an engineer at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station near Toledo, Ohio.

My career then took a different, but not unrelated, professional direction. I earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. To understand the citizens protesting outside of the power plant fence, I wrote my first book on the history of the antinuclear movement, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). Before coming to the NRC, I was a history professor and wrote on the history of nuclear power and environmental issues.

I am currently researching the history of the AEC and NRC in the 1970s. In future blog posts, I’ll mark the anniversaries of key agency events, discuss material from my ongoing research, and respond to reader inquiries. Let me know if you have a topic you’d like me to address by commenting on this post.

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

The NRC Gets Kudos for Diversity

The NRC is getting recognition for its diverse workforce. Readers of Minority Engineer Magazine have ranked the NRC as 5th on this year’s list of top government agencies.

Minority Engineer Magazine, first published in 1979, is distributed nationwide to engineering, computer-science and information-technology students and professionals who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American. Every year, more than 56,000 readers vote for the U.S. companies they’d most like to work for or believe are progressive in hiring minority engineers.

The NRC is aggressive in seeking out qualified minority employees in all its job categories, and our workforce reflects this focus on diversity. The agency’s workforce is 38 percent female and 62 percent male. Ethnic and racial demographics are African-American—13 percent; Asian Pacific American—7 percent; Hispanic—3 percent; Native American–less than 1 percent; and white—77 percent.

We are proud that the readers of this magazine recognize our efforts.

More information about working at the NRC can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/employment.html

Kimberly English
Recruitment Program Manager

Ongoing NRC Activities

As the Japan nuclear emergency continues into its third week, the NRC continues both to monitor the important events taking place across the Pacific and continue pursuing our ongoing responsibilities.

The NRC’s headquarters-based Operations Center continues to be staffed 24 hours a day with experts in nuclear reactors and protective measures, among others. NRC staffers who are part of a team in Japan continue to provide whatever assistance is requested, with some members of the team returning to the U.S. and fresh experts joining the team.

Today, NRC Chairman Jaczko arrived in Tokyo for a meeting with senior Japanese government and TEPCO officials. Afterwards, the Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement in which Jaczko said:

“Our nuclear experts are working closely with their Japanese counterparts, and we both continue to share expert analysis as we move forward to address this challenge. I reconfirmed in my meetings that we are prepared to provide any assistance we can in the days to come. The unprecedented challenge before us remains serious and our best experts remain fully engaged to help Japan address the situation.”

Meanwhile, the NRC issued its final supplemental environmental impact statement for a limited work authorization and the combined licenses for the proposed Vogtle Units 3 and 4 reactors. The press release can be found online.

And later this week, NRC staff will meet with representatives of the nuclear power industry to discuss issues with buried and underground piping at nuclear power plants. The public can participate through an audio bridge. The meeting notice is available online.

For the past two weeks the focus of this blog has been exclusively on Japan-related issues. Tomorrow, we’re transitioning back to our regular official bloggers, who will resume writing about the many different things this agency does. I will write about Japan-related activities when it’s warranted.

Come back this week for posts on an award we received for our support of minority engineers and a word from the NRC historian.

Eliot Brenner
Public Affairs Director

Latest NRC Actions Related to Ongoing Events in Japan

The NRC Commissioners voted this week to direct the staff to launch a review of U.S. nuclear power plant safety – as a direct result of the Japanese nuclear power emergency. The review will include a task force that will do both a short-term and long-term analysis of lessons learned. The review will be public when it’s completed. The task force doing the reports includes current senior managers at the NRC and former NRC experts with relevant experience.

The Chairman and Commissioners set very short deadlines for the task force. They want formal updates on the short-term effort in 30, 60 and 90 days. (Already NRC senior technical staff briefed the Commission on Monday about efforts so far. A transcript of that briefing is online. And the Commission wants the taskforce to start long-term evaluation within 90 days and should have a report on recommendations within six months of beginning that evaluation.

We’ll post more information on the results of the taskforce both here on the blog and at www.nrc.gov .

In a decision also related to events in Japan, the Commission revised its schedule for meetings and briefings to remain focused on the agency’s response to events in Japan. A revised Commission meeting schedule will be posted shortly on the NRC website here: http://www.nrc.gov/public-involve/public-meetings/schedule.html.

In other news, the IG report released today is focused on a subset of defects — manufacturing defects. Both utilities and NRC inspectors have processes for identifying and reporting manufacturing defects. The fundamental issue identified by the report is administrative and pertains to how these defects are reported. The NRC has a variety of other regulations that effectively encompass reporting all defects, and the NRC continues to conclude plants are operating safely. The NRC will look at the IG report to see if our reporting systems can be further strengthened.

Eliot Brenner
Public Affairs Director

All About EPZs

Whether by virtue of regular testing of sirens, mailings about emergency plans or possibly the receipt of potassium iodide (KI) pills, there are frequent reminders for those who live within a 10-mile radius of a U.S. nuclear power plant of the need to be ready should a significant event occur at the facility.

This area is known as the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ), and it is well established in federal regulations as the focal point of preparing for a severe accident at a reactor.

Some confusion has cropped up in the media and elsewhere recently regarding the size of EPZs in the wake of developments involving the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and  spent fuel pools in Japan. The source of this confusion appears to stem from the NRC advisory on March 16th for American citizens who were within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1108/ML110800133.pdf.

The advisory to evacuate to 50 miles was based on calculations done by NRC experts indicating releases from the three hobbled Japanese reactors and two fuel pools could – and a key word here is could – possibly exceed conservatively set safe radiation-exposure limits for the public. This advisory was made using limited data and conservative assumptions.

On its face, this recommendation seems to be at odds with the size used for American EPZs. In fact, it was consistent with the same kind of approach that would be used in the United States should a comparable, although extremely unlikely, event take place here.

In November 1976, a federal task force was formed to look at salient emergency planning issues for U.S. nuclear power plants. Out of that comprehensive evaluation came a recommendation that a 10-mile-radius EPZ would assure that “prompt and effective actions can be taken to protect the public in the event of an accident” at a plant. This was based on research showing the most significant impacts of an accident would be expected in the immediate vicinity of a plant and therefore any initial protective actions, such as evacuations or sheltering in place, should be focused there.

Put another way, the projected radiation levels would not be expected to exceed EPA protective action dose guidelines (1 rem to the body or 5 rem to the thyroid) beyond 10 miles under most accident scenarios.

That does not mean the protective actions could not expand beyond the 10-mile radius. Rather, emergency planners have always known such actions could be necessary if the situation warranted it. Indeed, U.S. nuclear power plants are required to consider and drill for the possibility of radiation releases that could have impacts up to 50 miles away, in addition to the required biennial exercises conducted in the vicinity of each nuclear power plant to assess implementation of the emergency plan within the 10-mile EPZ. Once every six years, each plant takes part in an exercise graded by the NRC and FEMA to demonstrate how it would handle such an event.

As the document NUREG 0654/FEMA-REP-1  on emergency planning states “In a particular emergency, protective actions might well be restricted to a small part of the planning zone. On the other hand, for the worst possible accidents, protective actions would need to be taken outside the planning zones.” (This joint document is the basis for emergency planning around nuclear power plants and adds background to our regulations found in 10CFR 50.47.)

The Japanese have been confronted with extremely challenging circumstances wrought by a record earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. As the NRC carefully monitored developments there, the agency used the best information available to it to make a protective action recommendation to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for Americans within 50 miles of the six-reactor Japanese site, which was experiencing problems in four reactors and two spent fuel pools.

Were a similar accident to occur in the U.S., the response would be guided by the same considerations. But it is worth noting the United States has no nuclear complexes of this size.

Once the salient facts regarding the events at Fukushima Daiichi are made clear to the NRC, it intends to assess its own regulations and practices for any pertinent lessons learned that can be applied here. This will include an assessment of current emergency planning guidance and policy.

As the NRC carefully monitored developments there, the agency used the best information available to it to make a protective action recommendation.

More information on emergency planning for U.S. nuclear power plants is available on the NRC website at: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/emerg-preparedness.html .

Eliot Brenner

Public Affairs Director
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