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.

TVA May Be Interested in Building Small Modular Reactors

The NRC regulates three operating nuclear power plants owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA): Browns Ferry, near Athens, Ala.; Sequoyah, in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and Watts Bar, near Spring City, Tenn. In a recent letter to the NRC, TVA — the nation’s largest public power company — indicated it may want to build small modular reactor modules at its Clinch River Site in Roane County, Tenn. This would be the first application received by the NRC for a small modular reactor.

Small modular reactors differ from the 104 nuclear power plants currently licensed by the NRC in that they have a lower electrical output, are manufactured elsewhere and brought to a site instead of being constructed on site. The small modular reactor design that TVA is considering would be an integral pressurized-water reactor designed by the Babcock & Wilcox Company called mPowerTM. The mPower reactor has an electrical output of 125 megawatts as opposed to approximately 1000 megawatts for the currently operating reactors. The lower electrical output of these small modular reactors make them a better fit for some applications such as the Clinch River Site.

One of the primary customers for the electricity generated by these reactors will be the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which is adjacent to the Clinch River Site. They have a need for green power that is significantly less than 1000 megawatts.

TVA has informed the NRC that they may eventually build up to six reactors on this site. The modular nature of the designs allows a utility to easily add additional reactors to a site should electricity demand increase. In addition, since the reactors will be manufactured in a factory, the vendors claim that the cost and quality of construction will be better than other reactor designs. They also claim that key design features of the integral pressurized water reactor design make them potentially safer than currently operating reactors.

TVA proposes using the NRC’s “two-step licensing process” for an initial group of module reactors, and the combined licensing process for future modular reactors at the Clinch River site. For more information on new reactors and the processes, please click on the agency’s public web site at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors.html.

TVA said it plans to submit its application to the NRC in 2012. We expect our review for the construction permit to take about 2 ½ years. The NRC expects to continue discussions with TVA to identify and resolve potential licensing issues within the coming months.

In addition, the NRC will continue meeting with B&W to review the technical adequacy of the mPower design. If the NRC determines that TVA has provided sufficient information, it will issue a construction permit that would allow TVA to begin construction of the first reactor at the Clinch River site. The NRC would not allow TVA to operate the reactor until a determination is made that it has been constructed properly and meet all of the appropriate safety, security, and environmental requirements.

Since the mPower design is a new one, TVA and B&W must work together to demonstrate to the NRC that all of the new features of the design meet our requirements. For more information on this design, go here: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/advanced/mpower.html.

Stewart Magruder
Advanced Reactors Branch Chief
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