U.S. NRC Blog

Transparent, Participate, and Collaborate

Monthly Archives: September 2013

Potential Government Shutdown: The Path Forward for the NRC — UPDATED

Mark Satorius
Executive Director for Operations

Update: This week’s Waste Confidence meetings will be held as scheduled. We’ll keep you updated on the status of meetings scheduled for next week.

The NRC can’t predict the likelihood of a government shutdown next week, but we are prepared for all contingencies in case of a lapse of appropriations for federal agencies effective on Tuesday.

If there is a lapse, many agencies will shut down operations and furlough employees except for those necessary to support possible emergencies. At the NRC, however, we have some “carryover” funding, which is essentially previous year’s funding that was not expended. By being careful with that money, the NRC should be able to remain open for at least one additional week of largely normal operations.

At this time, then, the NRC is not issuing employee furlough notifications. Should the lapse of appropriations last longer than our “carryover” funding allows, the NRC has a plan reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget for identifying staff members who will remain on the job to perform the excepted NRC functions for emergencies.

The planned staffing for NRC “excepted functions” necessary to support emergency operations during a lapse of appropriations is approximately 300 of the agency’s 3,900 employees. Of that number, roughly half are resident inspectors assigned to reactor and fuel facilities. The rest of the “excepted” personnel include staff necessary to initially respond to emergency situations at NRC licensed facilities. The Chairman, the NRC Commissioners and Inspector General are in addition to this number and are exempted from furloughs because they are Presidential appointees.

We will notify licensees and external stakeholders through a Regulatory Issue Summary if there is a lapse of appropriations on Oct. 1, and then again if the lapse exceeds our carryover funding.

OMB and OPM websites have more information about the situation government-wide.

The NRC will to continue to uphold our important mission of protecting public health and safety. We will also make every effort to reduce uncertainty and disruption for our valuable staff members, to the extent we can.

Waves of Uncertainty: The Demise of the Floating Reactor Concept (Part II)

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

Offshore Power Systems, apparently, did not appreciate that putting land-based reactors out to sea was bound to raise new safety, environmental and regulatory questions. Concerns about ship collisions, off-shore fishing grounds, barge sinking and the challenge of creating a new regulatory process for floating reactors were just some of the unique issues facing regulators.

Even the trade press raised concerns. Nuclear News worried about the “incredibly tangled mass of overlapping jurisdictions, state, national, and international law, inter-agency authority” that included new players such as the U.S. Coast Guard.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events conspired to worsen OPS’s prospects. The oil crisis that began in 1973 made construction financing expensive and slowed electricity consumption. Facing slack demand, PSEG postponed delivery of the first floating plant from 1981 to 1985 and later to 1988. Tenneco backed out of the OPS partnership in 1975. With the entire enterprise threatened, Westinghouse and the Florida Congressional delegation asked the federal government to purchase four plants. But, the prospect of “bailing out” OPS did not appeal to officials in the Ford Administration. The purchase proposal died.

Floating reactors did not solve regulatory or political problems. The production facility in Jacksonville needed an NRC manufacturing license. There were so many technical and regulatory uncertainties that the licensing review ran three years behind schedule. A 1978 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the NRC for what it believed was an incomplete safety review, particularly for not accounting for impacts on the ocean ecosystem during an accident where a melting reactor core broke through the bottom of the barge.

Local and state opposition to the plant was intense. Nearby counties voted in non-binding referendums 2 to 1 against the Atlantic Generating Station, and the New Jersey legislature refused to introduce a bill to turn the offshore site over to PSEG.

Westinghouse held out hope for a brighter future; PSEG didn’t. In late 1978, the utility announced it canceled its orders for all four of its floating plants. Slack demand, it noted, was “the only reason” for the cancellations. “We simply will not need these units” in the foreseeable future, a utility official admitted.

Others blamed excessive regulation. In March 1979, John O’Leary, a Department of Energy deputy secretary, provided to the White House a “grim—even alarming report,” as one staffer said, that the NRC delays with the OPS license were symptomatic of a larger problem. “It has become impossible to build energy plants in America” O’Leary said, due to excessive environmental regulations and an indecisive bureaucracy. Environmental laws, O’Leary complained, had created “a chain of hurdles which effectively kill energy projects” and damage to the nation’s economy. He wanted presidential action.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events rendered O’Leary’s plea for action moot. Two and a half weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred, ending any hope of an imminent industry rebound. The accident raised anew questions about a core melt accident and further delayed the manufacturing license. The NRC did not issue a license until 1982. In 1984, Westinghouse formally abandoned the OPS enterprise, dismantled the Jacksonville facility, and sold its huge crane to China.

Going to sea, OPS discovered, did not allow it to escape the problems that beset nuclear power. A novel technological solution could not overcome public distrust and economic, technical and regulatory uncertainty. We shall see how Russia handles the challenges.

Floating Nuclear Power Plants: A Technical Solution to a Land-based Problem (Part I)

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

In July, Russia announced it planned to build the world’s first floating nuclear power plant to supply 70 megawatts of electricity to isolated communities. If successful, the plan would bring to fruition an idea hatched in the United States nearly a half-century ago.

It’s not widely known, but in 1971, Offshore Power Systems (OPS), a joint venture by Westinghouse Corporation and Tenneco, proposed manufacturing identical 1,200 MW plants at a $200 million facility near Jacksonville, Fla. Placed on huge concrete barges, the plants would be towed to a string of breakwater-protected moorings off the East Coast. Using a generic manufacturing license and mass production techniques, Westinghouse President John Simpson predicted this approach could cut in half typical plant construction time and make floating reactors economical.

While Simpson touted their economic advantages, utilities wanted floating power plants to overcome mounting opposition to land-based reactors. Site selection had ground to a near halt in the Northeast and the West Coast due to public opposition, seismic worries and environmental concerns. In July 1971, a federal court complicated siting further by forcing the NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, to develop thorough Environmental Impact Statements for nuclear plant projects.

In fact, West Coast utilities met defeat so often on proposed coastal power plant sites they turned inland in an ill-fated move to find acceptable arid locations. By heading out to sea, Northeast utilities hoped they could overcome their political problems.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas Corporation (PSEG) responded enthusiastically and selected the first site, the Atlantic Generating Station, about 10 miles north of Atlantic City at the mouth of Great Bay. A PSEG spokesman said floating reactors were “the only answer to the problem of siting nuclear power plants.” Other reactor vendors, including General Electric, also studied the possibility of floating reactors.

A supportive regulatory response heartened OPS officials. The AEC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards issued a fairly positive assessment of floating reactors in late 1972. “We think this is a very favorable letter,” a Westinghouse official said of the committee response, “and we don’t see any delay whatsoever.”

Westinghouse moved forward with its grand plan and built its manufacturing facility near Jacksonville. The facility included a gigantic crane that was 38 stories high — the world’s tallest.

It appeared to be smooth sailing ahead for floating plants with a RAND Corporation study that touted their superior ability to withstand earthquakes and other natural hazards. Spoiler alert: RAND selected for floating power plants one of the most ill-conceived yet prescient of acronyms, FLOPPS.

Exactly how the seas turned rough for floating plants will be unveiled in Part II on Thursday.

Transporting Spent Nuclear Fuel: How Do We Know It’s Safe?

John Cook
Senior Transportation Safety Scientist
Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

In May, we talked about changes to NRC regulations regarding shipments of nuclear materials – including spent fuel. This month, we wanted to share the results of a periodic evaluation of the risk posed by spent fuel shipments. The NRC expects to publish the final study later this year. A draft was published in 2012.

Microsoft Word - diagram-typical-trans-cask-system-2.docSpent fuel shipments are strictly regulated and have not released any radioactive materials since they began more than 30 years ago. But the NRC still periodically evaluates the risks. As more data become available and computer modeling improves, these studies allow us to refine our understanding of these risks.

The latest study, Spent Fuel Transportation Risk Assessment, modeled the radiation doses people might receive if spent fuel is shipped between various sites. The study confirmed that NRC regulations for spent fuel transport are adequate to ensure safety of the public and the environment.

Both the NRC and the U.S. Department of Transportation oversee radioactive material transport. DOT regulates shippers, vehicle safety, routing, and emergency response. The NRC certifies shipping packages for the more hazardous radioactive materials, including spent fuel.

To be NRC-certified, a package must provide shielding, dissipate heat, and prevent a nuclear chain reaction. It must also prevent the loss of radioactive contents under both normal and accident conditions. The package must be able to survive a sequence of tests meant to envelope the forces in a severe accident. These tests include a 30-foot drop onto an “unyielding” surface (one that does not give, so the package absorbs all the force), a puncture test drop onto a steel peg, and then a 1475-degree Fahrenheit fire that engulfs the package for 30 minutes.

The 2013 risk assessment examined how three NRC-certified packages would behave during both normal shipments and accidents. It modeled a variety of transport routes using population data from the 2000 census, as updated in 2008. It used actual highway and rail accident statistics. It considered doses from normal shipments to people living along transportation routes, occupants of vehicles sharing the route, vehicle crew and other workers, and anyone present at a stop. And it used state-of-the-art computer models. The risk assessment found:

 Doses from routine transport would be less than 1/1000 the amount of radiation people receive from background sources each year

 There is less than a 1 in 1 billion chance that radioactive material would be released in an accident

 If an accident did release radioactive material, the dose to the most affected individual would not cause immediate harm

The 2013 risk assessment builds on earlier studies of transportation risks. It uses real-world data and equipment in place of generic designs and conservative assumptions. The first study, done in 1977, allowed the NRC to say that its transport regulations adequately protect public health and safety. Other studies done in in 1987 and 2000 found the risks were even smaller than the 1977 study predicted. These studies, together with analyses we perform on major transportation accidents, previous physical testing of package performance, and the global experience with thousands of completed spent fuel shipments, give the NRC confidence in the safety of spent fuel shipments.

For more information on how the NRC regulates spent fuel transportation, click here. To read our updated backgrounder on the subject, click here.

Adding a Piece to the Seismic Puzzle

Clifford Munson
Sr. Technical Advisor for Nuclear Plant Siting
Office of New Reactors

One of the important lessons from 2011’s Fukushima Dai-ichi accident was the need for U.S. reactors to better understand their earthquake hazard. Reaching that understanding is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and reactor owners in the central and eastern parts of the country are sending the NRC one of their pieces this month.

seismicThe graphic shows the three pieces of information U.S. reactor owners need in order to analyze their specific hazard:

• Where quakes are generated

• How the country’s overall geology transmits quake energy, and

• How an individual site’s geology can affect quake energy before it hits the reactor.

The first two pieces are taken care of. The NRC partnered with the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute to publish updated earthquake source information last year. We also recently approved the most recent model of quake energy transmission.

U.S. plants east of the Rocky Mountains have been enhancing their ability to describe their sites’ soil and rock properties, in some cases obtaining more information on what lies beneath the reactors. Sites made up primarily of hard rock (at left in the graphic) tend to amplify high-frequency quake energy, while sites with more of a soil-like makeup (at right) tend to amplify low-frequency energy.

Central and eastern U.S. reactor owners are starting the process of putting all three pieces together to update their site’s hazard. They’ll report the results to the NRC by March of next year. They’ve provided updates on their sites’ soil/rock makeup now so the NRC can examine the information and ensure it meets the basic standards needed for the overall hazard review. Plants west of the Rockies have a more complicated version of the puzzle to consider, so they’ll submit information to the NRC later.

%d bloggers like this: