U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Regulating Domestically, Thinking Globally

The NRC’s Office of New Reactors is mostly focused on nuclear power in the U.S. But we also have a role to play in the global nuclear regulatory community. For example, we have regular meetings with the nuclear regulators of other countries, where we exchange information on “best practices,” challenges ahead and ways to communicate more effectively. We also participate in conferences around the world where we inform the public and our peers of our activities, and gain valuable insights into the best practices of regulators around the world.

And we support activities that allow us to cooperate with our peer regulators and provide assistance to new regulators organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the United Nations, headquartered in Vienna, and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), a part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris.

Meanwhile, we are participating in an important international initiative called the Multinational Design Evaluation Program. The program’s goal is to share information that will strengthen our reactor design reviews. To that end, NRC staffers are working with their contemporaries in other countries on reviewing AREVA’s Evolutionary Power Reactor and Westinghouse’s Advanced Passive 1000 (AP1000) Reactor. These reactor designs are slated to be used by U.S. companies interested in building new reactors.

By sharing this information, the NRC is collaborates directly with regulatory authorities in Canada, China, France, Korea, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, among others. We also are a significant partner in the Working Group on the Regulation of New Reactors, a relatively new group formed by the Committee on Nuclear Regulatory Activities (part of NEA) to encourage sharing information on licensing new reactors and overseeing their construction.

The bottom line is that NRO is key to keeping important information about nuclear power plants flowing around the world. This sharing of information and experience benefits all the countries that rely on nuclear power for their electricity needs.

Bob Jasinski
Senior Communications Specialist

Lessons Learned from Japan — and Elsewhere

The recent earthquake and tsunami spurred one of the world’s most serious nuclear accidents. It was a defining moment in the history of nuclear power and it is a catalyst for the NRC to review how we do our job.

But it’s important to note that the Japanese emergency is not the first catalyst for dramatic changes in the way the NRC works. While our regulations have consistently changed and improved over time, there were three paradigm-shifting events that brought about dramatic developments in our approach to nuclear risk, safety and security.

The first of these events was the Browns Ferry fire in 1975. The incident started when a plant employee, using a candle to search for air leaks, accidentally set a fire. This was a standard way to check for leaks in coal-fired power plants and – as crazy as it sounds now — it had been carried over to the nuclear industry. (It may surprise you to learn that one of the preferred methods for plant personnel to extinguish these not-uncommon fires was by beating them out with their flashlights.)

In the aftermath of the Browns Ferry fire, the NRC instituted a number of changes to ensure that nuclear power plants more effectively prevented fires and could react more successfully if they did happen. The Browns Ferry fire also spurred the development and incorporation of modern risk analysis into the NRC’s nuclear safety program.

The second of these defining events was the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. As the most serious accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry, this event precipitated changes in nuclear safety so numerous and far-reaching that it’s difficult to overstate the impact. We overhauled our approach to emergency management, developed systematic approaches to evaluating operational experience, shifted toward more risk informed regulation, significantly expanded our resident inspector program, and reorganized the NRC.

But perhaps the most important insight we gained from Three Mile Island was the central role of people in plant safety. Before this accident, engineering and equipment were considered the foundation for nuclear safety. The Three Mile Island accident, with its operator errors, changed that. This important insight led to an increased focus on human performance, and the revamping of training and staffing requirements for operators. Even today, more than 30 years later, the importance of people to plant safety continues to resonate throughout the NRC and the nuclear industry.

The third major event was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although not a nuclear event, the attacks spurred the NRC to take immediate, aggressive actions aimed at the security of the nation’s nuclear facilities and materials. The long-term effect of September 11th extends far beyond those early steps. By keeping us focused on the ever-evolving and highly dynamic nature of the threat environment, 9/11 has left an enduring imprint on our approach to nuclear security.

These three significant events transformed how we understand the nature of nuclear safety and security, and what we needed to do to protect the public. The events in Japan have the potential to raise new concerns and offer lessons that may evolve our understanding of nuclear safety. I can assure you that our ongoing safety review will be systematic and methodical, and conducted with an appropriate sense of urgency. I expect there will be lessons learned and changes made as a result of this tragedy.

Gregory Jaczko
Chairman, NRC
Moderator note: An op-ed by Chairman Jaczko on nuclear safety is available here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gregory-jaczko/ensuring-nuclear-safety_b_867666.html.

Working to Keep Our Web Info Current

With so much information on the NRC website, it is difficult to keep everything up to date. The agency staff works hard every day on licensing actions, certifications, technical reviews and such, which means information can go out of date almost as soon as we post it.

But we’ve recently done several updates on important materials and wanted to point them out.

We recently overhauled the NRC’s Uranium Recovery page to include current information on the staff’s reviews of several applications for new uranium recovery licenses out West.

We also recently made a change to our Fact Sheet on Biological Effects of Radiation. The pie chart showed where Americans get their average annual radiation exposure from, and was taken from a 1980s-era report by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP). The NCRP had updated the graphic in 2009, almost doubling the amount of average annual radiation exposure because of the rise in medical procedures.

We had used the 2009 graphic in our brochure on Radiation Protection and the NRC and in our Radiation Protection section of the NRC website. But we had missed it in the fact sheet. It was an easy update, and today, for now at least, the fact sheet is current.

Another fact sheet we recently updated is Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants. This is a lengthy one that contained information specific to each plant currently being decommissioned. The problem was that work continued after the last update was posted in January 2008, so we worked with the technical staff to make sure the information there is current. The decommissioning folks have been busy the last three years!

We work hard to keep these materials up to date. But if you see something on the NRC’s website that seems inaccurate, out-of-date, or contradictory to another item or statement we make elsewhere, please let us know so we can correct it! (An e-mail to OPA.Resource@nrc.gov will do the trick.) And be patient – we’re trying to keep up!

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

A Day In the Life of an NRC Materials Inspector

An NRC inspector walks up to a pickup truck that has a strange oversized camper. Next to the truck sits a device that looks like a large metallic lunch box with bright yellow labels, except this lunch box has what appears to be 30-foot-long tubes stretching from each end like tentacles. She takes out her radiation survey instrument and it starts to register a faint, familiar chirp.

The inspector has just stumbled upon a radiographic exposure device (camera) that contains a radioactive source (pill). Radiography is a type of non-destructive testing and can be compared to a type of mobile industrial X-ray service. The dense shielding within the camera surrounds the pill and protects those nearby from excess radiation exposure.

Back to our inspector, she is surrounded by a field of large pipes stretching across the open landscape like capillaries moving the rich natural gas and oil resources from their barren origin in western Wyoming to the urban centers where they are needed. The pressures of the fluids in these conduits is high. Any defects or weaknesses in the system can lead to leaks, failure, or catastrophe.

Similar to going to the doctor to get a chest x-ray, radiographers use the radioactive source to get images of the internal welds connecting the robust pipes. The resulting exposure, or image, can tell the engineers whether the pipe weld is weak and needs to be replaced, or if this one is sturdy and will get the contents to their destination safely.

The inspector completes her surveys; no readings were out of the ordinary. She discusses security controls with the radiographers; the radioactive source must not fall into the wrong hands. She verifies that the public is safe; the procedures were followed to ensure that no one was allowed near the radiation.

Jason Razo
Region IV

Who Does What in an Emergency Involving Radiation?

The federal government, under the National Response Framework, plans for – and practices – responding to all kinds of possible emergencies. Under the framework, agencies are tasked with doing things based on their usual area of expertise and responsibility. It’s a system that works well. But it can be somewhat confusing for the public to know “who does what” during an emergency – especially an emergency that involves radiation.

If an emergency involves a nuclear facility that is licensed by the NRC, we are charged with heading the federal government’s “technical response.” That means our nuclear experts and officials work directly with the facility operator to make sure the incident is ended as quickly as possible, and that the communities and environment around the site are protected. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) works with officials responsible for the communities near the incident to make sure their emergency response is appropriate, and offers help if needed.

Who is monitoring the radiation?

Monitoring is done by the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and interagency teams such as the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center (FRMAC). The FRMAC is an important part of the radiation monitoring process. This team monitors, samples and assesses radiation in the United States. The FRMAC is led by the DOE initially, and then the EPA for site cleanup efforts. Members of this team come from many agencies, including DOE, EPA, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A different team, the Advisory Team for Environment, Food, and Health, uses this radiation information to give advice and recommendations related to the environment, food, health and agricultural animals (especially dairy cows). This team includes experts from the EPA, Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers of Disease Control.

Other federal agencies and the Department of Defense are responsible for other parts of a radiological emergency response, too. While it may seem like an “alphabet soup” of responders, what it really means is the U.S. has a plan that puts the right experts in the right place to do what they do best on behalf of the American people. The NRC is proud to be part of that response.

Sara Mroz
Emergency Preparedness Specialist
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