On the Road With the Regulators

Last week the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) held its 21st annual convention in Miami which, for the first time in a couple of years, included a day-trip with a nuclear focus.

The trip started with a visit to a National Park Service solar project on an island at the outer reaches of the Biscayne National Park. Two houses on Adams Key operate entirely with solar power, though, like nuclear plants, there is a backup diesel generator as a backstop. (Reactors generally have two or more units each the size of a locomotive.)

The boat to Adams Key, which has its own interesting history, went past the Turkey Point power plant where a Florida firm operates two reactors. Several years ago the NRC issued a 20-year extension to the original 40-year licenses, and the company wants to put two more reactors on the site. In addition, the firm has asked the NRC for permission to get a bit more power out of the two existing reactors. The site also has three non-nuclear units.

Senior NRC official Jack Grobe, most recently a member of the team of NRC veterans who developed recommendations to enhance reactor safety in this country after the Fukushima accident, and myself, accompanied about 40 environmental journalists on the day trip. It was our job to provide information about NRC activities, and later Jack participated in a panel discussion on nuclear issues.

Reaching out to journalists and editorial writers, and by extension their audiences, is one of the ways the NRC works to inform the public about what it does. Our message was short and simple – we have one job, and that is to protect people and the environment.

On a bus between tour stops, I offered a summary of “who we are and what we do,” and Jack and I took questions – no small feat while standing at the front of a bouncing bus. With one hand on a support and the other holding a microphone, it was a bit like surfing and trying to carry on a conversation. Jack took the question about the work of the NRC inspectors assigned to each of the 104 reactors in this country. As deputy director of the NRC office that oversees the cadre of highly trained experts with that job, he provided a look at the areas of inspection, inspection cycles and what we do if an inspector spots something unusual.

The subsequent roundtable discussion got a tad esoteric and delved into some very nuanced issues. It was there that Jack described the NRC Fukushima recommendations, which had been endorsed as an action plan for the agency in an announcement just hours before he spoke.

The bus ride question and answer session was fun for us and hopefully educational for reporters and editors, and at the roundtable it as interesting to hear so many different perspectives in one place at one time. Thanks to the SEJ for the opportunity.

Eliot Brenner
Public Affairs Director

There Are No Cracks in Davis-Besse’s Containment

The NRC was informed by FirstEnergy on October 10 that it had identified what looked like a crack in the concrete shield building of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The plant had been shut down and workers were starting to cut a hole in the side of the building in order to move and replace the reactor head when they found the crack. The shield building is made of about three feet of concrete reinforced with two to three-inch steel rods.

It’s important to emphasize that the shield building at Davis-Besse is not the reactor containment vessel. That vessel is made of one-inch thick welded steel and sits inside of the shield building separated by about four and a half feet of hollow space. The shield building’s primary function is to protect the containment building against external hazards. The steel vessel is designed to keep the radiation inside the reactor from reaching the environment.

Because the plant is currently shut down there is no threat to public health and safety. Furthermore, this issue did not meet the NRC’s reporting requirements because it did not constitute an immediate safety concern.

Nevertheless, the NRC immediately sent a concrete material expert to the plant. In addition, there were already two resident inspectors and specialists from the Region III office in Lisle, Ill., on the site monitoring the reactor head replacement activities. They are now also conducting an independent assessment of this new issue and are reviewing the utility’s efforts to understand the issue and any potential safety significance. If there are any challenges identified with the design function of the shield building the NRC will expect the utility to resolve them before restarting.

Comparisons have been made between the cracks found at Davis-Besse and cracks in the containment structure at the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida. However, there are significant differences between the two plants. Crystal River’s containment vessel is attached to the shield building serving as a single structure to prevent radiation from reaching the environment whereas at Davis-Besse, the free-standing steel containment vessel, which is separate from the shield building, serves that function. Because of this difference, the cracks identified in the containment structure at Crystal River in 2009 challenge its safety and that is why the plant is currently shut down.

Viktoria Mitlyng
Region III Public Affairs
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