U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Waste Confidence Public Comment Period Ending Soon

MH900287136The NRC’s public comment period on the scope of an environmental impact statement for the waste confidence decision and rule ends January 2. The waste confidence decision and rule is related to the safety of spent fuel storage. So far, we have received more than 400 wide-ranging comments and suggestions on issues we should cover in this important document. Several more are anticipated before the deadline.

In addition to the hundreds of thoughtful comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement, we received much criticism on the scoping process itself, in particular with regard to the length of the scoping period, the January 2 deadline, how the notice was phrased, and whether the NRC was in compliance with its regulations. These concerns have been reviewed and considered by the NRC staff and the Commission. NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane also responded in a letter earlier this month to some of the overarching concerns that have been raised.

The Commission maintained the original 70-day formal comment period, as it provides in its judgment sufficient time for the public to develop thoughtful comments. This period is also consistent with, or longer than, most other comment periods for other NRC actions. The scoping notice was published on October 25, 2012, and the NRC has held four public meetings to date.

The NRC will take into consideration all of the comments received and develop a draft environmental impact statement and proposed rule by August 2013. The public will also have an opportunity to comment on these documents. We plan to hold a number of regional public meetings across the U.S. after their issuance.

For more information about the NRC’s ongoing efforts to develop a generic environmental impact statement to support a revised Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, please visit the NRC’s website. While there, you can also sign up for automatic updates.

Keith McConnell
Director, Waste Confidence Directorate

What is a Reactor Trip and How Does it Protect the Plant?

nppmapThe Salem nuclear power plant’s Unit 1 “tripped” on Dec. 21st. Brown’s Ferry Unit 2 tripped the following day. In both cases, something happened that caused the reactor to automatically shut down to ensure safety. In other words, a trip means a plant is doing what it’s supposed to do. Let’s look at the term a bit more closely.

Key operating parameters of a nuclear power plant, such as coolant temperature, reactor power level, and pressure are continuously monitored, to detect conditions that could lead to exceeding the plant’s known safe operating limits, and possibly, to damaging the reactor core and releasing radiation to the environment.

If any of these limits is exceeded, then the reactor is automatically shut down, in order to prevent core damage. In nuclear engineering terms, the automatic shutdown of a nuclear reactor is called a reactor trip or scram . A reactor trip causes all the control rods to insert into the reactor core, and shut down the plant in a very short time (about three seconds).

How do control rods do their job?

The control rods are composed of chemical elements that absorb neutrons created by the fission process inside the reactor. They are placed methodically throughout the nuclear reactor as a means of control. For example, as the control rods are moved into the reactor, neutrons are absorbed by the control rods and the reactor power is decreased. Inserting them all at the same time shuts down the reactor. Control rods can also be inserted manually, if necessary.

The plant operator then determines the reason for the trip, remedies it and, when it’s determined to be safe, restarts the reactor. So, while not common, a reactor trip is an important way to protect the components in a nuclear power plant from failing or becoming damaged.

Samuel Miranda
Senior Reactor Systems Engineer

The Importance of Paying Attention to “Chill”

snowThe terms “chilling effect” or “chilled work environment” are important ones for the NRC. And they’re not referring to the winter weather.

At the NRC, “chilled” refers to a perception that the raising of safety concerns is being suppressed or discouraged – either outright with discrimination — or by a slow or no response. Depending on whether this perception is held by one person or a group of employees determines whether this is “a chillding effect” or a “chilled work environment.”

In either case, the NRC takes any allegation regarding the suppression of safety concerns seriously.

Recognizing that licensees have the first responsibility for safety and are in the best position to respond promptly to a safety matter, the NRC encourages workers to first raise safety concerns with their management. For this to happen, workers must feel free to raise potential safety issues directly to their management.

The NRC recognizes that if workers are subjected to harassment, intimidation, retaliation, discrimination, or other discouraging behaviors by management for reporting safety concerns, a “chilled” work environment may be created that could inhibit workers from reporting additional safety concerns. If this happens, a valuable source of information for maintaining and improving safety is lost.

In its simplest sense, if a worker at a facility the NRC regulates (or who works in connection with licensed materials) chooses to submit an allegation to the NRC rather than with their employer it may be an indication that the worker is “chilled.” For this reason, the trending of allegation information can provide the NRC with insights into the work environment of our licensees, including whether they are providing a safety conscious work environment.

For more information about the NRC’s allegation process visit our website at http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/regulatory/allegations/what-is-allegation.html .

Maria E. Schwartz
Sr. Program Manager
Concerns Resolution Branch
Office of Enforcement

A Visit to Japan: Reflections from the Chairman

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane exchanges documents after a signing ceremony with her counterpart Chairman Shunichi Tanaka of the new Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority. The documents establish, among other activities, a joint steering committee between the two regulatory agencies.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane exchanges documents after a signing ceremony with her counterpart Chairman Shunichi Tanaka of the new Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority. The documents establish, among other activities, a joint steering committee between the two regulatory agencies.

This past weekend I had the honor of leading a delegation of U.S. officials to an international conference in Japan designed to keep up the global momentum of enhancing nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident.

We met in Koriyama City, some 30 miles west of the scenic Japanese coast, where recovery work continues on the four Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors that were damaged by tsunami-induced flooding and the explosive force of pent-up hydrogen.

In my remarks to our counterparts in the newly installed Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (JNRA) and to the roughly 400 delegates at the conference from across the globe, I stressed that national nuclear regulatory bodies must be independent and buffered from political winds and whims. And at each opportunity, our delegation said that a regulator’s work should be carried out in an open and transparent manner so all can see the reasoning behind decision-making, and that regulators should be funded and staffed at a level to get this important work accomplished.

One of the more important sessions I held was with the newly appointed chairman of the JNRA and three of his Commissioner colleagues. We discussed the challenges ahead as the JNRA embarks on the demanding task of creating an effective independent nuclear regulatory program for Japan. This will be a major undertaking, not easily accomplished. If asked, the NRC will enthusiastically assist JNRA. I am confident that other nations and non-governmental organizations with nuclear experience and expertise will also step forward if their help is requested.

On our first day in Japan we visited the crippled reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi. We approached the scene through silent villages, devoid of people, with weeds growing in abandoned parking lots, and japanmapnow-empty crop fields. I saw the immense beauty of the countryside and the Japanese coastline. This striking land is now empty and may be unusable for a considerable period; 160,000 people are displaced because of the radiation that escaped these reactors.

We stood atop the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima site, next to the now-covered spent fuel pool. We witnessed the progress made by a full contingent of cleanup workers in remediating the site, a testament to the resilient spirit of the people of Fukushima and Japan. This said, immense work is still ahead at the Fukushima site and the surrounding areas – work that will take decades to complete.

On reflection, I can’t help but be reminded of the important role the NRC performs for the nation; the work we have underway to further enhance reactor safety; and the renewed importance of ensuring no accident like this happens in the United States. I want to be sure that we continue to take the steps necessary to be certain that communities surrounding nuclear reactors are protected and that we’ve done all we can as regulators to prevent and mitigate severe accidents that displace people and contaminate land.

Allison Macfarlane
NRC Chairman

Recapping a Year’s Worth of Fukushima-Related Work

JLD vertical CTo implement what we’ve learned from 2011’s Fukushima Dai-ichi accident, the NRC in November 2011 created a group of more than 20 full-time employees focused exclusively on these activities. This Japan Lessons Learned Project Directorate is now a year old, and everything it’s accomplished to date highlights our dedication to enhancing U.S. nuclear power plant safety.

The directorate’s initial focus, with support from across the NRC and other federal agencies, was issuing orders and requests for information in March 2012 that address many of the lessons we’ve learned.

The Mitigation Strategies order ensures that U.S. reactors will have additional emergency power supplies and other equipment to safely handle extreme natural disasters. The Reliable Hardened Vents order ensures U.S. reactors similar to Fukushima will have more robust systems to vent pressure and hydrogen, helping avoid the explosions we saw during the accident. The Spent Fuel Pool Instrumentation order ensures U.S. reactors will be better able to monitor how much water is in their spent fuel pools during an emergency. The information requests have plants reconsidering their earthquake and flooding hazards in light of the latest information, and also ask plants to consider their emergency plans for such situations.

Our work on these issues in fiscal year 2012 included 82 public meetings, and the entire agency devoted 51,203 person-hours to Fukushima-related activities. That’s the equivalent of 43 full-time staff members working on these improvements.

Across the country nuclear power plants are responding to our efforts; all 104 U.S. reactors have performed two walkdowns per reactor, one for earthquake issues and one for flooding. The plants have sent us hundreds of updates, covering issues such as the status of newly purchased equipment for safely handling a prolonged blackout and new spent fuel pool instrumentation.

JLD vertical CWe’ve also created this logo to help you identify our work on implementing the lessons we’ve learned. The bonsai tree represents Japanese culture, with the green foliage in the shape of Japan’s islands representing hope and growth. The red sun comes from Japan’s flag, and the base of the logo represents a solid foundation of cooperation and understanding. It’s important to remember that the NRC’s work on Fukushima-related matters applies only to U.S. reactors. Japan’s decisions on issues, such as restarting reactors, are entirely that country’s and independent of the NRC’s activities.

All the work we’ve completed this past year sets the foundation for several additional years of action on the orders and requests for information. We expect to get the first sets of flooding and seismic re-analyses next year, as well as every plant’s integrated approach to complying with the orders. We’re also planning several long-term activities looking into other aspects of what happened at Fukushima, so keep an eye out for further developments.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
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