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

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

18 thoughts on “Holding Nuclear Power Plants to Strict Standards”

  1. Each emergency diesel generator shall have adequate fuel oil to operate for three to seven days without needing to be refueled. In addition, sites must also have procedures and contracts with fuel suppliers to get additional fuel to operate the generators for as long as 30 days.

    Since the seven-day fuel oil requirement was established in the mid 1970s, after some plants were already licensed, there are some differences in how plants meet this requirement.

    The exact specific details of maximum and minimum fuel oil capacity at the 104 nuclear plants are provided in licensee’s Technical Specifications, Technical Requirements Manual, and design bases calculations. However, all plants have programs and procedures to replenish the fuel before the minimum inventory is reached in accordance with plant-specific Technical Specifications.

    There is more information in 10 CFR Part 50, “Domestic Licensing of Production and Utilization Facilities,” at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/part050/.
    For more guidance see the following references:

    NRC Regulatory Guide – 1.137, “Fuel-Oil Systems for Standby Diesel Generators.” The guide can be downloaded from NRC web site: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML0037/ML003740180.pdf

    ANSI N195 1976 or ANS 59.51, Edition: 97, “Fuel Oil Systems for Standby Diesel-Generators” ANSI standards can be purchased http://global.ihs.com

    ASTM D975-77, “Standard Specification for Diesel Fuel Oils; ASTM standard can be from purchased from http://www.astm.org/Standard/index.shtml

  2. Nrc,

    I was trying to post this in the open forum but it does not seem to be open for comment. Is there a certain amount of fuel that plants are required too keep on hand for emergency operations? If so how much is it? If this rule is governed by fuel volume, what is the basic time, in days, that a plant can operate on emergency power with no resupply of fuel? If the amount varies from plant to plant can you give me a high and low end, and what governs why the required volumes may be different. Thanks a lot.

  3. > The suppression ring was not reinforced, as the NRC has mandated here.

    This wouldn’t help F1 much, cores would melt regardless.

    > The containment vessel bottom appears to have not been reinforced as the NRC has directed.

    This wouldn’t help F1 much, cores would melt regardless.

    IOW, Fukushima-like disaster in US would probably have somewhat less disastrous amounts of radiation released, but it would still be bad. IOW: many US reactors probably wouldn’t survive complete station blackout lasting about a day, just like F1 did not.

    After Fukushima lesson, the level of safety where we basically *must* ensure that blackout NEVER lasts more than an hour doesn’t feel good enough to me.

    I think Fukushima tells us that we need to require all new designs to be able to survive multi-day complete power outage (and by outage, I mean “no diesel generators either”). Also, all new designs should have Core Catcher, so that if we ever do reach corium stage, we have a disaster plan even for that.

  4. So “perception” is REALITY, right? The important thing then is the industry, not the safety of people or environment in which they live, correct? Yes, let us keep the discussion “real”, shall we? The discussion should “real”-ly be centered around WHY the industry has been subsidized for so long if it’s such a great idea to use nuclear for the generation of electric power in the first place. WHY is the industry using older technology, especially if the industry really thought nuclear was going to be the means to provide power for generations to come and thus they’d be generating profits for years to come? Is it perhaps because the powers behind government (read transnational corporations) knew nuclear power was an interim, short-lived distraction? Otherwise, wouldn’t the nuclear industry have poured much more effort into upgrading and retrofitting at least existing plants? What did they know that the public doesn’t know? Industry leads the way, right? If money talks, then industry and the non-governmental organizations set up around industry (mostly as controlled opposition funded by your tax dollars), and the bureaucrats (read “policy makers”) who spring up around the industry to “regulate” it are all on the same page–even if many of the lower echelon people in these organizations don’t understand that they are. All 3 groups need each other to continue their own existence.
    If nuclear is such a great way to provide energy, one must ask- is it really the big, bad NRC that has stopped industry from building great, nuclear plants based upon new (and superior) technology? Or is there another reason? Is it perhaps that the time is approaching when we must be “green” and live in communitarian communities with mercury, vapor-filled light bulbs, or lots of candles, fewer private modes of transport and human and animal “corridors”? What would’ve been the point in wasting industry money on better, safer nuclear plants? Is it likely that carbon trading is the new, money-making wave of the future for those in-the-know, and nuclear will slowly be laid to rest? Love nuclear or hate nuclear; that isn’t the ultimate question. The questions are: what is the agenda for “the century of change”, who benefits from the agenda and who is running the agenda?

  5. I think you are misplacing any blame here for lack of progress upon the NRC when it more fairly belongs elsewhere. The NRC, while in the immediate sense, may have blocked forward movement with Yucca Mountain, it isn’t responsible for the project’s demise. Yucca Mountain was doomed long ago, beginning with passage of the “screw Nevada bill”. No waste depositories globally have been able to proceed without the cooperation and involvement of the local community, and which the NWPA of 1982 in its wisdom originally had provisions, but were bypassed. It was long past time to stop the hemorrhage of funding into a project failed due to poor policy decisions implemented by the DOE, at the behest of industry.

    The accident at TMI had a profound effect on the construction of new power plants. And yes, the public wanted reassurances that improved safety measures would be put into place, justifiably so. The biggest hindrance however has been economic ones. Deregulation, cheap coal, inability to obtain loans from lenders (requires federal guarantees), inability to obtain liability insurance (again, taxpayers must fund liability beyond initial deductible amounts), and the requirement of outright taxpayer funding subsidies to cover substantial portions of construction costs. New regulations may well have driven up costs to some extent but that doesn’t negate the fact that nuclear energy has required infusions of federal funding to be cost competitive with our own fossil fuels. It is cheaper for the industry to maintain current plants than to build new ones.

    I am certainly an advocate of the need to explore new technologies, particularly ones that address the back side of the fuel cycle. Our most pressing issue is our spent fuel pools. In the interim, at the very least, we need to get the fuel into dry cask storage. We also need to look into the feasibility of technologies that have built in safety features and produce less waste, e.g. molten thorium salt reactors. However, this requires funding and since industry hasn’t been forthcoming, we need to have an honest and open discussion as a nation if this is a policy we want to pursue, particularly in the current environment of spending cuts and deficit reductions.

    And btw, we have NO plants that are 60+ years old, nor even 50, or 45. Our oldest plant, Oyster Creek in NJ, went online in 1969, 42 years ago. It will be decommissioned in 2019, at 50. Let’s keep the discussion real. Industry credibility is already a major factor in play, and its future depends largely on increasing the public’s perception of its trustworthiness.

  6. I’m sure the Chairman realizes that it does somewhat give the impression that the NRC is a captured agency when a former Chairman leaves his post at the NRC and goes to work directly for a company he was just regulating in the form of the Shaw Group. And that this Chairman was appointed a VP in the power division. Shaw group it just so happens is the half owner of Westinghouse, the company that makes the AP1000 reactor. This is the only new reactor that is even close to being approved to be constructed. I saw that everything seemed to be going good to get these reactors installed in Georgia, the wheels had been greased, if you get my drift. Even though serious safety concerns had been pointed out about the AP 1000 .When I pointed out on your May 4 blog post “a full and fair hearing” about the connection between the former Chairman and the AP1000, I was happy to see Chairman Jaczko had ordered a safety review of this reactor on 5-20-2011, good catch on that one Mr. Chairman.
    Also, I would like to point out that while damaging, regulatory capture at the SEC, FCC, FDA or any other regulatory organization is nowhere near as dangerous, by several orders of magnitude, as regulatory capture at the NRC. Regulatory capture at the NRC has the potential to physically destroy the country. So comparing it to some other agency is being a little disingenuous or it points to the fact that someone doesn’t realize just how important the NRCs job is, and just how dangerous these plants are.

  7. I don’t think that the NRC can be accused of being too cozy with the nuclear industry. After all, the NRC was created after such accusations against the AEC. If anything, the NRC over-regulates. Notice how many new nuclear plants have been built in the past 20 years in the US? … NONE … oh excuse me, TVA did complete one that they had mothballed. If the NRC had been too cozy with the industry then cost of nuclear plants wouldn’t have skyrocketed! As it is, they’ve practically have driven up the costs so much that it’s not practical to build one. Meanwhile, China and India are pushing forward with Gen III, III+, and IV reactors. They’ll probably have molten salt reactors before we will and will be buying the technology from them.

  8. Mr. Jaczko,

    The statement “Any changes are always made for sound scientific reasons and without regard for potential economic on plant operators.”, while it sounds honorable and sound, concerns me a bit as an American. Because constantly increasing the barriers to economic viability of existing nuclear facilities and to entry by newer, safer, more advanced, less waste producing nuclear technologies and plant designs, without regard at all to economics, has stunted the growth and understanding of nuclear in the U.S. and worldwide. The NRC’s actions and regulations have, both directly and indirectly, prevented the commissioning of any new commercial power reactors in the last 35 years, it has prevented the logical and forward looking completion and opening of waste storage and processing, and it has prevented the true development of new revolutionary nuclear power plant designs that, in 35 years past of more reasonable regulation, would likely have solved or minimized many of the issues we continue to have with current operating plant designs (that are now 60+ years old).

    Instead of continuing to stunt the industry, cede the U.S.’s technical leadership in nuclear to China, France, South Africa, and even India, and essentially allow designs like the BWR design used in Fukushima and other places to persist as the only designs out there by not allowing new designs to economically pursued, why not open the NRC to some true consideration of the overall problem by allowing some reasoned look at economics when new safety regulations are continued. The nation would truly be served better for it…

  9. I think SOME information will be gained, but not a lot.
    From what has happened, it appears that Japan’s NISA did not require TEPCO to make some changes that the NRC and European authorities ordered. The suppression ring was not reinforced, as the NRC has mandated here. The containment vessel bottom appears to have not been reinforced as the NRC has directed. The suppression chamber seems to still have been vented inside of containment, rather than through scrubbers to the outside of the plant, as the NRC had ordered here.
    Additionally, TEPCO didn’t follow their own emergency procedures in several areas, to include maximum tolerable pressure before venting.
    If anything, what will be learned is, the NRC has the regulatory authority that NISA lacks.

  10. One quick comment, or perhaps two.

    First, while I don’t necessarily agree that the NRC is always on top of its regulatory duties the way that it needs to be, a comparison to the SEC and the financial industry is like apples and oranges. The NRC has been too “cozy” at times, and asleep at the wheel at others, IMO, but certainly not nearly to the same extent.

    The other comment relates to Fort Calhoun. When it first hit the news I looked up the event report at the NRC and came upon the documents filed the previous year relating to the lack of preparedness for a flood event. Excellent, excellent catch on the part of the NRC. They were not adequately prepared. By the end of the process they were in excellent shape. I believe the proof will be in the pudding. Good job! Enjoy this complimentary comment from me while it lasts, it will be a rarity. 🙂

    Oh, and Commissioner Jacszko, good job standing ground and casting the lone opposing vote to (yet again) extend the time reactor facilities will have to amend their fire response plans. They should have been completed yesterday.

  11. I think that a lot will be gained from the still ongoing incident in Japan. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a catastrophe to educate us on avoiding a catastrophe… good article.

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