U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Honeywell Modifications Mark a Victory for Public Safety

Jim Hickey
Branch Chief, Division of Fuel Facility Inspection
Region II

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that caused unprecedented damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan, the NRC began a special review of the U.S. facilities involved in the production of uranium and manufacture of fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants.

Our traditional approach to inspections involves confirming such facilities are complying with the license requirements the NRC established to ensure safety and security. Our approach for these inspections was a little different. These inspections were designed to confirm these facilities were capable of withstanding an unlikely but credible event such as an earthquake or tornado.

We determined only one facility was in need of changes to ensure safety and security prior to resuming operations. That plant was the fuelcyclelistHoneywell Uranium Conversion Facility, in Metropolis, Ill.

When presented with our inspection results, Honeywell agreed with our conclusions. Over the next year, the building where the uranium conversion process takes place was fortified — imagine really big steel beams. Also, the process equipment was modified by adding supports and an automatic shutdown system that immediately stops the operation if an earthquake occurs.

How simple and straightforward that description seems! Let me assure you it was far from that. First, Honeywell had to determine what forces the facility could be subjected to and then translate that into how strong the building and process equipment would need to be to withstand the event. Then, they had to figure out how to modify the plant, where to put additional supports and how those supports would be installed. They also had to design the automatic seismic shutdown system, and then actually do the work to install the changes.

For the regulatory oversight portion, we reviewed Honeywell’s analysis, and asked questions until we were satisfied the answers gave us the information we needed. We reviewed and inspected the modifications. We drew a path from the initiating event earthquake or tornado to what was actually installed in the facility to ensure the changes accomplished the design goals.

Our efforts crossed multiple organizational boundaries within the NRC as well as state and local agencies. It would take too much space to document all of those who contributed as it’s a lengthy list. After all this, last month we granted Honeywell authorization to restart the facility.

We all recognize the importance of our day-to-day efforts to ensure the safety and security of our nation’s nuclear facilities, and occasionally we embark on an activity that significantly improves the safety of a facility. This was one of those times.

The Vermont Yankee Announcement

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer, Region I

vyYesterday, Vermont Yankee became the fifth U.S. commercial nuclear power reactor since the beginning of 2013 to announce plans to permanently cease operations. Earlier closure declarations this year involved the Kewaunee nuclear power plant, in Wisconsin; the two-unit San Onofre facility, in California; and Crystal River, in Florida.

Of those plants, Vermont Yankee’s decision has the most in common with Kewaunee, in that a primary determining factor, according to its operator, was changes in the electricity marketplace — particularly an abundance of low-cost natural gas — that impacted the plant’s economic competitiveness.

Given the plant’s satisfactory safety performance, it is currently under the normal level of oversight from the NRC.

For residents of Vermont and neighboring states, one of the first questions that may come to mind is what comes next?

Going forward, the NRC will continue its rigorous oversight of the Vernon, Vt., plant through the remainder of its operation and then into and through the decommissioning process. Once the final operational cycle concludes for the single-unit boiling water reactor, the facility’s owner, Entergy, would have to formally notify the NRC of the permanent cessation of power production within 30 days. Subsequently, Entergy would have to formally let us know once the fuel had been removed from the reactor.

vermontThere are numerous steps that would then follow in the decommissioning review process, including holding a public meeting near the plant to discuss the company’s plans. The company will outline its plans in a Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR), which is to be submitted within two years after the certification of permanent closure. The PSDAR would provide a description of the planned decommissioning activities, a schedule for accomplishing them, and an estimate of the expected costs.

After receiving a PSDAR, the NRC publishes a notice of receipt in the Federal Register, and makes the report available for public review and comment.

More information about the decommissioning process is available in an NRC fact sheet and on the agency’s web site.

Browns Ferry: Improving, But Increased Oversight Continues

Two members of the inspection team that reviewed operations at the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant take a closer look at plant equipment.

Two members of the inspection team that reviewed operations at the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant take a closer look at plant equipment.

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The NRC issued two important documents this week that mark significant milestones in the agency’s oversight and inspection of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry plant in Alabama.

We sent a confirmatory action letter to TVA outlining a list of actions committed to by the utility and intended to ensure the continued improvement of the Browns Ferry nuclear plant.

After those actions are completed and we’ve inspected them, we’ll reevaluate our increased oversight of the plant. The additional oversight came after a red — or high safety significance — inspection finding in October 2010 related to the failure of a valve in Unit 1.

The NRC also issued a detailed inspection report, totaling more than 400 pages, which describes the findings of a 23-person inspection team that looked at all aspects of the Browns Ferry plant’s operations. The team included inspectors from three of the NRC’s four regional offices and headquarters, and had more than 250 years of combined NRC experience.

The NRC inspection team concluded the Browns Ferry plant is being operated safely and its overall performance has begun to improve, but the plant will remain under increased oversight as TVA continues with its improvement plan.

The letter to TVA and the inspection plan provide valuable information to plant management, people living near the plant and others that may be interested, but it’s not the end of the story. We will conduct follow up inspections to ensure the commitments outlined in the confirmatory action letter are met and the plant’s improvement plan is implemented successfully.

Security and Nuclear Power Plants: Robust and Significant

Robert Lewis
Director of Preparedness and Response

Security of the nation’s commercial nuclear facilities is a critical part of the NRC’s mission. In response to recent media stories about security securityat nuclear power plants, we want to reassure you that U.S. nuclear power plants are adequately protected against potential terrorist attacks. In fact, they are among the best-protected sector of our national infrastructure.

In the decade since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the NRC, and its licensed operators, acted to enhance security at the nation’s nuclear plants. While the plants are secure, robust structures designed and built to withstand a variety of natural and man-made enemies, we ordered additional measures. For example, we strengthened requirements related to physical barriers, access controls, and intrusion detection and surveillance systems, as well as the existing well-trained and armed security officers.

Specific security measures are considered “safeguards information” (a type of unclassified, yet sensitive information) and are not made public, for obvious reasons. The NRC can, however, describe these enhancements in general terms.

Each plant’s security plan is based on a Design Basis Threat, or DBT, set by the NRC. This is the maximum threat a private-sector entity can be expected to defend against. Details of the DBT are not public, but our regulations spell out the types of threats our licensees must prepare for. These include an assault by one or more determined and capable adversary forces attacking by land or water, truck bombs, boat bombs, insider threats and cyber attacks. The NRC requires each plant to test its security force annually, and the NRC also tests the security forces at each plant every three years in a sophisticated force-on-force inspection.

Security doesn’t stop at a plant’s boundary. The NRC requires licensees to coordinate with local law enforcement and emergency responders who can assist in the unlikely event of an attack. The NRC itself continuously coordinates with other federal agencies to assess the current terrorist threat and take whatever actions might be necessary to bolster security at nuclear plants. We work with the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security and North American Aerospace Defense Command to guard against September 11-style air attacks.

A recent report published by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the University of Texas used non-sensitive “open-source” information to assess the protections in place to counter terrorist threats to nuclear facilities in the United States, including potential threats to commercial nuclear power plants.

As an agency committed to the security of our nation’s nuclear power plants, we welcome recommendations for strengthening our oversight. However, we need to correct the record on two key points made in NPPP’s report. First, both new and existing reactors must mitigate against potential attacks using commercial aircraft; in fact our Aircraft Impact Assessment Rule requires design features for new plants to mitigate the effects of an airplane crash, and the NRC’s post-September 11 orders require existing plants to implement similar mitigating measures. Second, NRC regulations, based upon the DBT, do in fact require licensees to guard against waterborne attacks or explosives.

New OIG Report Issued on NRC’s Compliance with its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Regulations

oigStephen Dingbaum
Assistant Inspector General for Audits

An Office of the Inspector General audit that looked at the NRC’s compliance with its regulations related to preparing environmental impact statements went public today.

The audit – formally titled Audit of NRC’s Compliance With 10 CFR Part 51 Relative to Environmental Impact Statements — set out to determine whether the NRC complies with its regulations. The OIG identified areas of noncompliance with 10 CFR Part 51 related to disclosure and public involvement, specifically, publishing a record of decision, the format of environmental impact statements, and completing all scoping requirements for all environmental impact statements.

While NRC management officials stated they believe the agency’s NEPA implementation activities have been fully compliant with the relevant regulations, management also stated it will consider OIG’s recommendations as part of the agency’s continuous improvement efforts.

The NRC’s OIG is an independent, objective office tasked with auditing NRC programs and operations with a focus on — among other things — detecting fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

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