U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Walking towards earthquake and flooding safety

NRC inspectors Robert Krsek, Annie Kammerer and Steve Campbell (L to R) conduct seismic walkdowns of the emergency diesel generators at the Kewaunee nuclear power plant.

In response to the lessons learned from last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima, the NRC has required every nuclear power plant in the U.S. to take a number of actions. One of the highest-priority actions involves re-examining earthquake and flooding issues. In the short term, both plant personnel and NRC inspectors (shown in the photo) are walking through the plants, ensuring the systems and components can withstand the hazards that were analyzed when the reactors were built. There are separate “walkdowns” for earthquakes and flooding.

Before the earthquake walkdowns start, the plants compile a list of reactor and spent fuel pool systems that must work after a quake. The plants also assemble teams of employees, both people familiar with plant systems and mechanical or civil/structural engineers with experience working on nuclear plant earthquake issues.

The teams walk through the plant, examining how systems and components are anchored or supported to ride out a quake. They also look for issues such as whether a quake might lead to a fire or cause something to fall on an important component.

For the flooding walkdown, the plants compile the features (such as watertight doors or barriers) that protect the site, and take into account any site changes (new buildings, for instance) that could change flooding effects. The plant personnel doing the work would again include engineers in relevant specialties, as well as staff familiar with flood response procedures.

As these teams do their work, they’ll ensure the protective features are in place and able to deal with floods. They’ll also examine how much extra physical margin is available beyond what’s expected. For example, consider a watertight door protecting against a flood to the top of the door as called for in the plant design. If a window two feet above the door could allow floodwaters in, the site has two feet of available physical margin.

The plants will use their corrective action programs to deal with any issues identified during both walkdowns. The plants must correct any situation that challenges their ability to withstand quakes or floods previously analyzed.

The NRC’s part of the walkdowns combines earthquake and flooding specialists from our headquarters with the resident inspectors who work every day at the plants. They will examine the plants’ walkdown documentation and perform independent inspections to ensure the plants have done the walkdowns appropriately. The NRC’s resident inspectors will also follow up on the plants’ actions to address whatever issues they identify.

The walkdowns will also provide information for the other part of the earthquake/flooding reanalysis, which will ensure the plants understand the current hazards at every site. This additional work will continue for several years, with flooding work completed by 2015 and earthquake work continuing into 2016 for plants needing the most extensive reanalysis.

These walkdowns are just one part of the many actions we’re taking in response to what we’ve learned from the events at Fukushima. More details are available on our website.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

NRC Employees and Elections

As everyone knows, this is an election year and the political season is well underway with candidates for President, Congress, and state legislatures holding rallies, making speeches, and raising money. It’s almost impossible to ignore.

For federal employees, it also presents some dangers. We are bound by rules that are different than for the general public. The restrictions on our political activities are found in the Hatch Act, Office of Personnel Management regulations, and NRC Management Directive 7.10. They apply to full-time and part-time federal employees, even while on leave.

And the rules come with some stiff consequences. The mandatory penalties for violating the Hatch Act start with a 30-day suspension without pay and can result in termination.

The Hatch Act restrictions only apply to “partisan” elections – elections where candidates run on the labels of national political parties. The vast majority of elections are partisan, including the 2012 election for President, Congress, and state legislatures.

If an election is “nonpartisan,” federal employees are free to participate fully, including running for office or soliciting contributions. Nonpartisan elections are usually for local offices, such as school boards, where none of the candidates are running under political party auspices.

Under the Hatch Act, no NRC employee may receive or solicit contributions or run for office in a “partisan” election (except in designated communities, mainly in the Washington, D.C. area). In addition, no employee can engage in political activity while on duty, in a government office, while wearing a government uniform or insignia, or while using a government vehicle. That prohibition includes using a government computer or e-mail to advocate for or against a partisan political party, a candidate for partisan political office, or a partisan political group, or to make or solicit contributions for a partisan political campaign.

NRC employees cannot even wear a political button or insignia while on duty.

However, NRC and other federal employees are allowed to assist in voter registration drives, contribute money to political organizations and be active in political clubs or parties. And we can put a political bumper sticker on our car even if we park it in a federal building or parking lot.

Members of the career Senior Executive Service (SES) have even more restrictive Hatch Act limitations—they are prohibited from taking any active role in a partisan election.

The intention of the Hatch Act is to keep politics out of the federal government workplace. That keeps all federal employees – including those of us at the NRC – focused on our missions and on our work on behalf of the American public.

John Szabo
Special Counsel
Office of the General Counsel

What gets “upped” in an uprate?

Every year, a few nuclear power plants ask the NRC for permission to boost their power output in what’s called an “uprate.” The principles behind an uprate are fairly simple.

First of all, a plant’s NRC license sets a limit on how much heat the reactor core can generate. A hotter core creates more steam, which then runs a turbine at a higher rate to generate more electricity (we’ll get to how much more electricity in a moment). The basic heat limit is a key part of figuring out how the plant’s safety systems would protect the public in an emergency situation. The NRC carefully analyzes uprate requests to ensure the plant’s systems will continue to function properly at the proposed higher power level.

There are three uprate categories, starting with an increase of only a percent or two. A plant does this by installing more accurate instruments to determine how much water is going into the reactor. Plant operators must be sure they’re sending the correct amount of water through the core to maintain the proper power level. Since older instruments are slightly less accurate, a pre-uprate power level will be slightly lower to ensure safety. If plant operators are more certain how much water’s going into the core, they can be more certain how much power the core generates and therefore a slightly higher power limit is still safe and appropriate.

The second category is a “stretch” uprate, which increases the power level between two and seven percent. This is done by changing some instrument settings, along with redesigning the core to use slightly more of the type of uranium that undergoes a chain reaction. This redesign increases the core’s output.

An “extended” uprate, the third category, adds from seven to as much as 20 percent to a plant’s power output. It’s the most complex of the uprates, since it involves improving major systems such as pumps, turbines and generators, as well as using a revised core design. Updating so many systems with new parts requires the plant to do a lot of careful analysis to show the uprate can be done safely.

Several factors come into play when figuring out how much more electricity a nuclear power plant will produce after an uprate. Updating the non-nuclear side of the plant, such as the generator itself, can improve the plant’s ability to transform the reactor’s heat into electricity. A nuclear power plant also needs electricity to run its systems, and that comes from the transmission grid, offsetting some of the plant’s output. The plant’s needs can remain relatively steady after an uprate, however, so the increased output goes straight to the grid.

Putting all this together means that if a plant increases its reactor core output by 15 percent, for example, its net electricity output can actually increase a little more than 15 percent.

The NRC’s uprate reviews last at least nine months, and normally take about a year and a half for extended uprates. Our evaluations cover much more than changes to the fuel or large components such as pumps and turbines. We examine the uprate’s impact on the plant’s instruments and control systems, and we also look at how the increased power level comes into play for analyzing possible accidents and their consequences. We’ll also ensure the plant will appropriately revise its procedures and train its personnel.

Over the past few decades, uprates have safely and appropriately added the electricity generating equivalent of approximately seven new reactors to the U.S. power grid.

You can visit our website for more details on uprates. For an earlier post on the uprate at Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant, go here .

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

An Update on San Onofre

Three months to the day after being dispatched under a charter to investigate the circumstances surrounding a steam generator tube leak at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, an NRC Augmented Inspection Team issued their findings in a report just under 100 pages long.

Most of their findings had been previously reported by the news media following a June 18 public meeting in San Juan Capistrano. The team found that faulty computer modeling that inadequately predicted conditions in steam generators at the plant and manufacturing issues contributed to excessive wear of the components.

But the team also addressed an issue that had been the focus of much public attention – whether Southern California Edison provided the NRC all the information required about the proposed design changes to the steam generators before replacing them. The team reported that the licensee had done this.

The team also identified 10 issues requiring follow-up by the NRC. And another inspection will be conducted to assess the licensee’s regulatory compliance and identify potential violations of NRC requirements.

What lies ahead?We are now looking at dates and a location for another public meeting to be held in the vicinity of the plant. We will schedule this meeting in the near future to receive and respond to public comments and questions on the now-finalized AIT report and other issues of public concern.

The plant will not be permitted to restart until the licensee has developed a plan to prevent further steam generator tube degradation and the NRC independently verifies that it can be operated safely.

Victor Dricks
Region IV Public Affairs

What Happens When You Submit a Freedom of Information Act Request to the NRC?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed by Congress in 1966. It lets you, whether you’re a citizen or not, request documents from any federal agency, and the agency must give you copies, unless they fall under one of nine exemptions.

How do you to make a FOIA request? You submit a letter or email with as many specifics as possible. Remember that the more specific you are about the information you want, the more likely we’ll be able to locate the information.

Under FOIA, you can ask for a copy of any NRC document. This does not mean, however, that the NRC will give you anything you want. The Act requires the NRC to withhold sensitive information, such as personal privacy information, allegation information, investigative related records, proprietary information, classified or safeguards information. If we do withhold information from you, we will tell you why.

You should also understand that the purpose of the Act is to give the public access to existing information. That is, FOIA does not require us to create documents to satisfy your request, or to conduct research or investigations or analyze data to answer your written questions.

After we receive your request, we will send you a letter giving you the name and phone number of the FOIA specialist assigned to your request. We also will tell you if we’re going to charge you for finding, reviewing, and copying the documents.

The agency will then conduct a search for the information you requested, and determine if what we find can be given to you. If information is withheld from you, you will be allowed to appeal the withholding. Instructions on how to appeal will be provided to you.

We may post the redacted documents online so that others can see recent FOIA requests.

How long does the process take? Generally, we can get you the information you asked for in 20 working days. If your request is complicated — for instance, the information you want is scattered in offices across the NRC — we try to get the information back to you in 30 working days. We are still working on a large number of FOIA requests received as a result of the Fukushima accident in Japan last March, so sometimes response times are longer than normal.

If you have any questions, our FOIA web site is a good place to start.

Margie Janney
Deputy Director, Information and Records Services Division
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