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Monthly Archives: June 2011

A First Hand Look at the Flooding

Chairman Jaczko views flood preparations at Cooper nuclear power station near the Missouri River.

The Missouri River usually meanders past Nebraska towns like Fort Calhoun, Omaha and Brownville at a placid 5-7 m.p.h. These days it’s racing past at about 15 m.p.h., and spreading out over the surrounding farmland, turning the rich Midwestern soil into a boggy light brown bayou. And it’s creeping up around the two nuclear plants – Ft. Calhoun and Cooper — that sit hard by the Missouri upstream and downstream of Omaha.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko visited both plants this week and also flew over the Fort Calhoun plant. He was checking in with the full-time NRC staff who work at the plants and the reinforcements the agency has sent to these sites, talking with plant officials and workers, and inspecting the substantial flood preparations made at both plants.

The pictures from the helicopter tour over the Fort Calhoun plant look worse than the situation really is. The plant is surrounded by water, but protected by flood gates, waterproof bunkers and other systems, many put in place by owner Omaha Public Power District as the result of an NRC inspection two years ago that found the plant’s flood protection systems lacking. Now, all the vital safety equipment is safe and dry, despite the fact workers wearing hip-high waders pulling boats laden with equipment walk through 3-plus feet of water around the plant’s perimeter.

Not every nuclear plant these days has life preservers nearby in case a worker or visitor falls off the quarter-mile metal catwalk built to get people and equipment from higher ground into the plant. Workers hauling in gasoline cans with fuel for small pumps pass those coming out with the empties on the catwalk. Nearby sit two huge tanker trucks with diesel fuel for the huge diesel generators tucked safely into watertight compartments deep within the plant.

The chairman talked with reporters at several stops along the way, mentioning what he saw in the flyover and that the loss of an aquadam around the Fort Calhoun site was not a problem because it was a supplement to what the NRC requires, and the NRC requirements protect the plant against an additional eight or so feet of flooding. Inside the control room was a computer monitor reporting on the latest flood stages, showing the river at about 1,006 feet above sea level. The plant under NRC requirements must protect critical safety equipment to 1,014 feet.

Chairman Jaczko also spoke directly with Fort Calhoun employees at their Omaha headquarters, telling them this is a challenge that will be with them deep into the summer. “You seem to be preparing yourselves to deal with those challenges and that’s good to see. In the end, the challenge is yours.”

Press coverage was wall to wall: the calls for interviews from the major networks were non-stop (he did the CBS Early Show and an NBC interview before heading to the airport, CNN and ABC the day before, and talked to the New York Times and virtually every local print and broadcast outlet and major wire service at a press conference that drew about 10 video cameras.)

Outside the two plants, the Missouri is rolling by carrying no less than 160,000 cubic feet of water every second, according to Col. Robert Ruck of the Army Corps of Engineers who briefed the chairman before the helicopter tour. It’s the highest flooding on the Missouri since the flood control dam structure was put in place back in 1952.

The chairman said the visit at Fort Calhoun was instructive. “I don’t think you can appreciate a flood like this and the force and power of the water until you see it up close. When you get down close and really see the flow, you recognize this is not a trivial thing.”

At the two plants – Cooper which is operating and Fort Calhoun which has been off-line and cold for months because of refueling and the anticipation of flooding – NRC resident inspectors are standing watch to keep an eye on the performance of the flood protection systems and the work of the plant owners.

Outside, the Missouri keeps rolling by.

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs

For raw video of the chairman’s flyover of Ft. Calhoun go to: http://video.ap.org//

Holding Nuclear Power Plants to Strict Standards

It’s not uncommon for regulatory agencies to be accused of being too cozy with whatever industry they regulate. It happens to the FDA, the SEC, the FAA and other federal regulators. And it’s happening to the NRC with some vigor recently, especially since the public’s attention to the Japanese nuclear emergency.

As an independent regulatory agency, the NRC has a robust and comprehensive approach to holding U.S. nuclear power plants to strict safety standards. We have our own inspection and maintenance requirements that have led plants to detect and repair, replace or otherwise fix the equipment, systems or other issues mentioned in recent news coverage. In 2009, for example, the NRC’s inspections at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska showed the plant needed to correct deficiencies in its flood response plan. The NRC increased its oversight of Fort Calhoun while the plant responded, and today the plant is well-positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding.

The NRC has also ensured Westinghouse meets existing, stringent safety requirements in that company’s attempt to get its AP1000 new reactor design approved. There are many other examples.

The NRC never wavers from its primary mission – ensuring that the public remains safe during the civilian use of radioactive materials in the United States. The NRC carries out that mission by requiring all 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors to meet safety requirements. We work with professional societies to create and maintain the formal standards that support our requirements.

These professional groups, along with researchers from the NRC and the industry, regularly reassess whether or not standards should change. The NRC only permits such changes if they continue to maintain acceptable levels of public safety. The NRC may also review – and change – its own regulations for a variety of reasons. Any changes are always made for sound scientific reasons and without regard for potential economic impacts on plant operators.

And when problems are found and a licensee hasn’t upheld NRC requirements the punishment can be severe. The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant owned by FirstEnergy was fined $5.5 million for lying to the NRC and failing to follow agency requirements. The NRC kept Davis-Besse shut down for years until the plant’s damaged reactor vessel head was replaced and other required repairs were done. And when the NRC’s required inspections recently spotted degradation in the interim replacement head, the NRC forced FirstEnergy to accelerate its plans to install a brand-new, corrosion-resistant head.

The bottom line remains the same – the NRC sets appropriate technical requirements using impartial professional standards, expertise and analysis; we have inspectors stationed at every nuclear power plant in the country, who inspect plants every day; and we enforce our requirements to ensure the public remains safe. We have a single mission – safety.

Gregory Jaczko
Chairman, NRC

The Rising River Puts Flood Preparations to the Test

Flood protection plans that the NRC requires for all nuclear power plants are now being put to the test by historic flooding along the Missouri River in Nebraska. Rising waters are lapping at three sides of the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville. Fort Calhoun, located 19 miles north of Omaha, looks like an island in aerial photos.

One question is on everyone’s mind: Will the flood preparations be good enough?

Cooper, which is operating at full power, sits two and a half feet above current river levels. It remains under the Unusual Event declared on June 19. (Unusual Event is the lowest of four emergency categories established by the NRC.)

Nebraska Public Power District officials have installed barriers required to protect buildings and structures from flooding. A three-foot earth and stone berm has been assembled around the plant’s electrical switchyard for additional protection. If all goes well, floodwaters will not impact vital plant equipment.

The NRC has augmented its inspection staff at Fort Calhoun where there is now two feet of water in many areas onsite. In addition to the two resident inspectors, three more inspectors and a branch chief are there to provide around the clock coverage of licensee activities.

The Ft. Calhoun plant remains under the Unusual Event declared on June 6. Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) officials have not restarted the plant, which has been in a refueling outage since early April. This way they can devote their full attention to dealing with the flood rather than adding the distraction of startup, which can take several days of preparation.

The plant has erected an Aquadam around the powerblock – vital areas including the containment and auxiliary buildings. The water-filled berm is eight feet tall and 16 feet wide at the base, and provides protection for up to six feet of water. The dam also protects several pieces of equipment that have been brought onsite, including an additional emergency diesel generator for supplying AC electrical power, water pumps, firefighting equipment and sandbagging supplies.

An earthern berm protects the electrical switchyard and a concrete barrier has been built around electrical transformers to protect them. Satellite phones have been distributed to key workers. Extra food and water has been stockpiled.

Existing diesel fuel tanks have been topped off and two additional fuel tanks have been brought onsite. Special gas-fired pumps are available in the event of station blackout. If there is a complete loss of power on site the pumps can circulate cooling water through the spent fuel pool and reactor core.

The NRC’s inspections in 2009 revealed deficiencies in OPPD’s flood response plan. The NRC increased its oversight of Fort Calhoun while the plant responded, and today the plant is well positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding while keeping the public safe.

The NRC’s Region IV in Texas remains a hive of activity with communications ongoing between the technical staff, the resident inspectors at both sites, and licensee officials. Several times each day, managers discuss flood preparations with their licensee counterparts and receive briefings from the resident inspectors. Licensee plans are questioned, critiqued and where necessary augmented with input provided by NRC staff.

It’s all designed to stay one step ahead of the rising floodwaters.

Victor Dricks
Public Affairs

The NRC and the Write-in Campaign

The NRC has recently received thousands of nearly identical CitizenLetter© messages expressing concerns about U.S. nuclear power plants in light of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The CitizenLetters mention the Pilgrim, Indian Point, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants, among others, asking for “immediate inspections” and making claims about the plants’ inability to withstand severe natural events.

The NRC makes sure that all U.S. nuclear power plants are built to withstand external events including earthquakes, flooding, and even tsunamis where they can occur. Each plant is designed to safely ride out the strongest earthquake appropriate for its location. The Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants, for example, are designed to safely handle the highest levels of seismic activity expected at a U.S. site and both are also designed to withstand the largest tsunami that could affect the California coast.

The events that occurred in Japan are the result of seismic activity in a “subduction zone,” where one tectonic plate is pushed under another plate. The only place this kind of situation would occur in the U.S. is off the coast of northern California, Oregon and Washington. And the only nuclear plant anywhere near there is the Columbia Generating Station, which is some 225 miles inland.

It’s also important to understand that not only does the NRC devote thousands of hours a year to inspecting each nuclear power plant in this country, but that we have also conducted two inspections after the Japan incident specifically for issues related to emergency procedures and resources – just as the CitizenLetters mentioned. Both inspections showed U.S. plants are prepared to use those emergency measures to keep the public safe.

The first inspection covered “B5b” measures, which would help keep the reactors and spent fuel pools safe even after the sudden loss of significant areas of the plants. The second inspection examined the plants’ guidelines for reducing the severity of situations where a reactor core has been damaged. The NRC has also demanded more detailed information from every plant regarding its B5b measures.

A task force of senior NRC managers and staff has been working since early April to examine the lessons that can be learned from the situation in Japan. The task force’s systematic and methodical review will generate recommendations for any changes the NRC should make to its programs and regulations to ensure protection of public health and safety and the environment. This effort will also identify issues that warrant further study in the longer term. The task force is scheduled to provide its recommendations to the Commission in July.

So, while we thank everyone who sent a CitizenLetter, all the available information continues to show that U.S. nuclear power plants are designed and operated so they will protect the public and the environment, even after severe natural events.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs
Note: Chairman Jaczko made some comments today about possible regulatory  improvements that may come out of the post-Japan review. They are posted here: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/news/2011/11-113.pdf .

Rumors and the Rising River

As of June 16, NRC officially remains in normal response mode as the levels of the Missouri River rise and flood preparations are underway at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska. But behind the scenes there is lots of activity designed to ensure the safety of the plant.

NRC is augmenting its resident inspector staff to provide around the clock coverage at the site. In addition to the two resident inspectors permanently assigned there, four other NRC officials have been sent to site. This includes three inspectors and the chief of the branch overseeing the plant. A roster of other inspectors has been drawn up from which additional inspectors can be dispatched if the need arises.

Officials at the NRC’s Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, have been conducting daily conference calls with the station’s managers to monitor preparations and potential impacts on the plant, which is located about 19 miles north of Omaha. Exceptionally heavy rainfall and snowpack runoff led to this spring’s flooding of the Missouri River Basin that is reported to be the most severe the region since the 1950s and 1960s. Flood conditions are expected to persist for months.

The NRC’s Region IV office has contacted the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to review weather and river level predictions. NRC also plans to establish regular calls with FEMA, states and local response organizations next week for coordination purposes.

Events at the site are being closely followed by regional news media and Internet bloggers, whose attention was galvanized on June 7 when the plant declared an Alert following a fire in a switchgear room. The fire was quickly extinguished, but briefly knocked out power to two pumps circulating water in the spent fuel pool. This triggered reports that the plant’s spent-fuel pool was in danger of boiling and releasing radioactivity, prompting unfortunate comparisons with the accident at Fukushima.

As the level of the Missouri River continued to rise over the past few days, more and more news media helicopters buzzed the area. This prompted Omaha Public Power District officials to contact the Federal Aviation Administration with a request that they remind pilots of the NOTAM, or Notice To Airmen, in effect since September 11th, 2001, restricting the airspace around the plant. Similar NOTAMS are in effect for all of the nuclear power plants in the United States, as well as other elements of the critical infrastructure, and are meant to discourage pilots from flying too low or lingering in airspaces.

Unfortunately, this was misinterpreted by some of the media who reported that FAA had closed the airspace over the site. This suggested to some Internet bloggers that things were much worse than officials were publicly admitting, spurring reports that the airspace over the plant had been closed because of a release of radiation. An advisory that had been sent by NRC to the Department of Homeland Security was similarly misinterpreted, leading to reports that operators had flooded the containment building to protect the reactor.

The rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters.

Victor Dricks
Public Affairs Region IV
Moderator Note: In addition to the NOTAM, which remains in effect for all nuclear plants, in response to a request from Fort Calhoun on June 6, the FAA issued an additional NOTAM tightening, but not closing, the airspace around the plant. Aircraft are now restricted from flying within a two-mile radius of the plant below 3,500 feet.
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