U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Tracking the Source: Pilgrim’s Tritium Link

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer, Region I

pilgIt may not be as daunting as searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but the process of trying to track down the source of tritium contamination at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant has been long and painstaking.

Since mid-2010, efforts have been under way to determine why certain groundwater monitoring wells at the Plymouth, Mass., site have detected very low levels of tritium, a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen that is also a byproduct of nuclear power plant electricity production.

While tritium emits a weak form of radiation, does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin, the release of the radioactive material via an uncontrolled pathway is unacceptable to the NRC.

There is still more checking to be done, but now there is a possibility a 4-inch underground pipe might be the culprit.

The NRC, from the time the contamination was identified, has continued to press the plant’s owner, Entergy, to hunt for the point of origin so that further leakage could be prevented. Work done to find the source included extensive visual inspections of tanks, and piping and dye tests to track groundwater flows at the facility.

Until recently, those efforts did not bear fruit.

However, water leakage into the reactor building that occurred in mid-April helped plant personnel focus on the pipe in question. This pipe is used infrequently during any given year, to allow for the discharge of water containing small amounts of radioactivity, which limited the opportunities to detect this break. Still, this pipe was due to be checked as part of a voluntary nuclear industry initiative to inspect underground pipes and tanks that has been under way for several years and that all plants have undertaken.

The NRC will independently verify whether the pipe is, in fact, to blame for the contamination. In the meantime, the pipe has been removed from service to prevent any additional leakage. An NRC inspection of the plant’s implementation of the voluntary industry initiative is scheduled for September.

It’s important to note that the tritium contamination has remained on-site. Since the groundwater there is not used for drinking-water purposes, there is believed to be no risk to plant employees or the public as a result of the contamination.

Q&A With NRC Kids: Radiation and Other Questions

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs
One of the participants in the new video takes a question.

One of the participants in the new video takes a question.

Art Linkletter, a 1950s and ‘60s radio and television host, used to interview children for his show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” In that spirit, at last year’s “Take your Child to Work Day” at the NRC, we seized the opportunity to see what kids knew about NRC and related matters – and make it into a video.

We asked: Do you know what radiation is? We got a variety of answers – some vague and some spot on (they’ve obviously been listening to their parents).

Then we asked: Do you know what has radiation in it? No, not candy, despite what the kids might think. But yes, bananas and salt, and it also comes from the sun and from the stars, as explained by the NRC expert who answered the question.

Other questions we asked include what do nuclear power plants generate and what is a regulation. We have a variety of NRC experts answering all the questions – and correcting a few misunderstandings.

We hope you enjoy the video, and that teachers and parents can use it to help explain nuclear matters to school-aged children. And we want thank all the kids who participated in this project.


Note: A revised, shortened version of the video is now up!

Let’s Chat – Coming Soon to the NRC

Holly Harrington
Senior Advisor

Picture1The NRC is expanding its social media program next week by launching a pilot of a live discussion platform known as NRC Chat. The first Chat is scheduled for April 30 at 2 p.m. EST on the subject of history of U.S. nuclear power with the NRC’s historian, Tom Wellock.

The Chat is similar to the existing NRC blog, and is also hosted on WordPress, but it features a real-time discussion. Each one-hour Chat session will focus on a specific issue with an NRC expert responding to the questions. Some sessions we hope to hold in the future will include such topics as Japan “lessons learned” activities, hurricane preparedness and “waste confidence.”

Chat addresses a key element in NRC’s Open Government Plan — enhancing the agency’s communication with the public and other stakeholders through the use of social media technologies. Information on Chat comment guidelines is here.

We’ll post the future schedule and topics soon, and will always tweet reminders. We expect to hold two Chat sessions a month for about six months. We’ll then evaluate the platform, and solicit your input.

You can submit questions early by sending them to opa.resource@nrc.gov. Please put CHAT in the subject line.

We hope to see you at the Chat!

Fort Calhoun: A Status Update

Lara Uselding
Public Affairs Officer, Region IV

fcsThe NRC held a public meeting with Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) on March 27 to discuss the status of the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant. The plant, just north of Omaha, Neb., has been shut down since April 9, 2011, for a refueling outage. The outage was extended due to historic flooding along the Missouri River followed by an electrical fire that led to an “Alert” declaration and further restart complications.

At the March meeting, NRC oversight panel members shared that a 15-member inspection team had been on site conducting a very thorough inspection and independent verification of the plant’s current status.

Based on the results of the team inspection activities, the NRC has found there are a number of potential issues that appear to need licensing actions. The NRC has scheduled a meeting with OPPD officials on April 22 to discuss four changes the licensee made to the plant that may have required prior NRC approval.

The first involves a change made to the plant’s water intake structure, which was discussed in a recently issued report. Secondly, OPPD used a method to evaluate systems, structures and components for seismic conditions that was not part of their licensing basis. Thirdly, they changed the method for analyzing the suitability of piping systems without approval. Lastly, some plant equipment may not be adequately protected from tornado-driven projectiles.

The meeting to discuss these issues is open to the public and details about the meeting can be found here. The public is encouraged to contact the project managers to obtain meeting materials prior to the meeting and to ensure they plan for the appropriate number of bridge lines.

A second meeting also is scheduled between NRC and OPPD on April 22. That meeting, to discuss the ongoing review of flood mitigation activities, is closed to the public due to sensitive security information being discussed.

Ensuring the Safety of Spent Fuel in Storage

Mark Lombard
Director, Office of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation
Spent fuel dry casks

Spent fuel dry casks

While no one can say with certainty today where spent nuclear fuel will ultimately go for long-term storage or disposal, one thing is clear: the current methods of spent fuel storage are safe.

Managing the “back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle – what happens to the fuel after it is taken out of a reactor – may never be completely separated from political and economic considerations. But the technical challenges are fairly straightforward. Spent fuel is hot. And it is extremely radioactive. It must be kept cool and it must be shielded to protect workers, the public and the environment. It must also be properly controlled to prevent it from achieving a sustained nuclear chain reaction, also known as going critical.

The NRC has updated its Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel fact sheet, which explains the two major ways spent fuel is managed – in pools and in dry cask storage. The fact sheet explains the regulatory requirements, inspections and monitoring that ensure spent fuel is managed safely. It also details improvements the NRC has made to address concerns raised by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

An NRC backgrounder, Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, provides more detail on how this management strategy evolved, the basic requirements for dry storage, different licensing options and opportunities for public input.

A great deal more information on spent nuclear fuel storage is also available on the NRC’s website. We encourage you to read about our activities in this area and post your questions, comments and concerns below.

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