Keeping U.S. Reactors Safe from Power Pulses

The NRC requires U.S. nuclear power plants to be able to shut down safely in the face of many extreme events – tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes. But the NRC also takes into account far more unusual events, like solar flares and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a certain type of nuclear weapon. Both can affect generators, transformers and other parts of the electric grid – which in turn could affect nuclear power plants.

The NRC has been examining these issues for more than 30 years, starting in the late 1970s when the agency studied how EMP could affect nuclear power plant safe-shutdown systems. In February 1983 the NRC issued the study’s conclusion: nuclear power plants’ safety systems can do their jobs after an EMP event. The agency revisited the issue in 2007 to account for the increasing use of digital computer systems in nuclear plants, which potentially could be more susceptible to EMP. The agency continued to conclude as recently as two years ago that nuclear power plants can safely shut down following an EMP event.

The NRC has also examined potential “solar storms” and their potential to damage the electric grid. A strong geomagnetic storm on March 13, 1989, for example, severely disrupted electrical power equipment in Canada, Scandinavia, and the United States. After studying the event the NRC issued an Information Notice in June 1990, to ensure nuclear power plants understood how severe solar activity could affect transmission systems and other components of the power grid. Additional research in 2010 analyzed and compared solar or geomagnetically-induced current events to those of the EMP events previously analyzed. This work led to the same conclusion as the EMP studies – U.S. nuclear power plants can safely shut down if a solar storm disrupts the grid.

The edge of the NRC’s authority lies in a nuclear power plant’s electric switchyard, where our rules mesh with those of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s electric grids. Another body, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) develops and enforces grid reliability standards. The NRC works closely with FERC and NERC on grid reliability issues, including the effects of solar or geomagnetic storms and EMP.

Earlier this year a citizen petitioned the NRC to revisit the issue of grid disruption, this time focusing on the spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear power plants. The petition calls for a new rule that would require nuclear power plant spent fuel pools to have emergency systems capable of functioning for two years in the absence of an operating electric grid. The NRC is currently analyzing dozens of public comments on the petition, and the agency expects to issue a decision on the petition in the middle of next year.

If you’re interested in more details, look at the letter the NRC sent Congress last month.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service

Are you a customer of the NRC? We frequently interact with licensees, industry groups, other federal agencies, states and the general public. Some of these groups (licensees for example) do not fit the traditional definition of a “customer.”

Nonetheless, consistent with the basic intent of Executive Order (EO) 13571, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service,” dated April 27, 2011, and subsequent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the NRC has developed a Customer Service Plan.

The plan, posted at our website this week, describes several initiatives we’ve undertaken to streamline our interactions and transactions with key stakeholder groups. In particular, we are focusing on enhancing licensing operations and critical interactions with licensees, and public access to regulatory documents.

As part of its guidance, OMB asked each agency to include in its plan three to five key customer service areas and to include a “signature initiative” demonstrating the use of technology to improve the customer experience.

The NRC chose online licensing for radioactive material license applications as its signature initiative. Under this initiative, our web-based licensing system will provide an online platform for individuals and organizations to apply for a new license, renew a license, or amend an existing license for the use of radioactive materials. It will also provide an opportunity for Agreement States to use the same licensing platform.

Additionally, the system will provide a current, nationwide repository for official radioactive materials licenses that will provide an authoritative source that federal and state regulatory agencies can use to verify the validity of a license.

Our plan also

• Streamlines the process for criminal history background checks

• Increases public engagement through improved information access using quick response codes and smartphone technology.

• Makes it easier for hearing participants to use our electronic hearing docket (through which the NRC provides access to docket materials related to High Level Waste and Reactors, Materials, and Other Hearings).

• Improves customer service with a new Web-based tool to solicit customer feedback about the NRC Public Document Room.

We hope you’ll take the time to read out plan. We welcome your comments on our planned initiatives and any other ideas you may have for streamlining and improving the way we interact with our stakeholders.

Francine F. Goldberg
Co-Chair, Open Government Advisory Group