Factoring in Human Factors in Nuclear Power Plants

Valerie Barnes, PhD
Sr. Human Factors Analyst

Nuclear power plants are complicated. There are myriad systems and countless pieces of equipment that work together — and independently — to produce electricity. And they must work in a way that’s safe both for the communities around them and the workers themselves.

psychBut it takes more than machinery and equipment to make a plant run safely. It also takes people. And, well, people are very complicated, too.

That’s where we come in, NRC’s human factors psychologists – but we won’t be asking workers to lie on a couch and tell us their feelings and thoughts. Rather, our job is to assess the many things that affect human performance on the job. We are experts in measuring how humans process information and make decisions, as well as the behavior of individuals, groups and organizations in real-life settings. We look at the design of procedures and computer interfaces, the ergonomics of the workplace, how jobs are staffed, how staffers are trained and qualified, and what’s important for ensuring they are fit for duty. We also study communications and teamwork, and safety culture.

It’s our job is to ask and answer questions such as, “How might human performance fail in these circumstances? How likely is failure and what are the potential consequences? What could be changed to make failures less likely or less consequential?”

To answer these questions, the NRC’s human factors researchers collect information from academic sources, conduct experiments, and use operating experience from the nuclear and other industries to evaluate how human capabilities and limitations impact nuclear safety and security. From there, we use the research findings to create technical reports, regulations, and guidance. We also help resolve safety issues and make regulatory decisions.

To learn about this important – but perhaps little known – field of study and its importance to nuclear power plant safety, the NRC has just posted a video on the subject on YouTube. See what these specialized psychologists do – which has nothing to do with having clients lie on a couch and talk about their dreams.

Two Separate NRC Efforts Address Spent Fuel Safety

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

Today, the NRC is making publicly available four documents relating to the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel. The first three represent the agency’s work to date on revising its waste confidence rule and analyzing the environmental effects of extended spent fuel storage. The fourth is a draft study examining whether earlier transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage would significantly reduce risks to public health and safety.

Although both waste confidence and the spent fuel pool study discuss the safety of spent fuel, these are two separate efforts with distinct goals. So we wanted to explain the processes here on the blog to help avoid confusion.

dropquotedaveThe waste confidence documents represent a major milestone in the NRC’s effort to address last year’s U.S. Appeals Court decision striking down our waste confidence rule. The court directed the agency to analyze the environmental effects of never having a permanent repository for the nation’s commercial spent fuel, as well as the effects of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.

The three waste confidence documents being posted today on the NRC website are:

• A staff paper to the Commission (SECY-13-0061) recommending publication of a proposed rule and draft generic environmental impact statement, or GEIS, for public comment;

• A draft Federal Register notice containing the proposed rule and a “Statement of Considerations,” or preamble, that explains the rule, the conclusions in the GEIS that support the rule, and the changes in format that the NRC is recommending as part of this rulemaking (Enclosure1); and

• The draft generic environmental impact statement on the effects of continued storage of spent fuel (Enclosure 2); it serves as the regulatory basis for the proposed rule. A list of reference documents used in preparing the GEIS is also being posted on the NRC’s waste confidence webpage.

These documents are now before the Commission and are being made publicly available under standard agency procedure. The Commission may approve, modify or disapprove these documents, so we are not yet seeking public comments. We hope to publish them officially for comment in late August or early September, but that timeframe depends on Commission approval.

When they are published, the 75-day official public comment period will begin. During that period, we will hold 10 public meetings around the country to present the proposed rule and draft GEIS and receive your comments. Two of these meetings will be at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md. The rest will be in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, southern California, central California, Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Details will be announced closer to the dates on the NRC’s public meetings webpage and the waste confidence webpage.

reportsThe spent fuel pool study is being published for public comment. A Federal Register notice to be published soon will set a 30-day deadline and explain how to submit comments.

The NRC began this study after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. Although the spent fuel pools at Fukushima did not fail, the accident sparked debate in this country over whether it might be safer to transfer spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage sooner than is the norm.

The study considered a pool at a boiling-water reactor with Mark 1 containment (the type used at Fukushima and 23 U.S. reactors) and an earthquake several times stronger than the pool was designed to withstand. It examined both a “full” pool and one with less fuel and more space between the assemblies, with and without emergency procedures to add water to the pool in the unlikely event an earthquake causes the pool to drain.

The pool study and the waste confidence review are separate efforts. The draft GEIS does not explicitly reference the pool study, though the waste confidence staff worked closely with the staff preparing the pool study while developing relevant chapters of the draft GEIS. If a final version of the study is published before the final waste confidence GEIS, the staff will incorporate a reference to it in the final GEIS.

These four documents represent two distinct NRC efforts on one very important subject: the safe storage of spent fuel and its environmental impacts. We look forward to your comments on the draft spent fuel pool study now, and on the waste confidence proposed rule and draft environmental study in the fall.