U.S. NRC Blog

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New Op Center Makes NRC Response More Efficient

Bill Gott
Chief, Operations Branch
Division of Preparedness and Response

The NRC’s Emergency Operations Center in Rockville, Md., is the hot spot for agency responders during real events and exercises. It was there that experts convened when planes became terrorist tools in 2001 and when Fukushima’s reactors began to fail after a massive tsunami in 2011.

It’s also been hub for countless exercises and smaller events that pull together trained responders from throughout the agency to staff teams responsible for monitoring reactor responses, planning for protective actions, and staying connected with stakeholders ranging from other federal agencies to Congress and the media.

But the Op Center had issues as a work space. It was cramped, with low ceilings and a strange use of space to accommodate the “wagon wheel” design, with all teams arranged around the decision-making Executive Team. It was also a design based on people moving around and passing paper.

As far back as 2008, the NRC began looking at options for redesigning and/or moving the Op Center. With the impending construction of the 3WFN building, the decision was made in 2010 to move the center across the street to the new addition to the headquarters complex.

A view of the agency's new Op Center, with the Executive Team on the left and the Reactor Safety and Protective Measures teams on the right, seen here during an exercise.

A view of the agency’s new Op Center, with the Executive Team on the left and the Reactor Safety and Protective Measures teams on the right, seen here during an exercise.

While the footprint is about the same in terms of square feet, the new center has a large open area and a better design with a more efficient use of space. A large “video wall” with six projectors and 80 linear feet of room allows maps, status information, chronologies, task check lists and news feeds to be presented simultaneously for all responders to see. LED lighting provides a better spectrum, saves energy and is easier on the eyes for responders often working 12-hour shifts during real emergencies.

The new space also relies on web cams and head sets for responders to give briefings to the Executive Team. This reduces foot traffic, noise, and the need for team leaders to be away giving briefings when they are needed to be near their response staff. The Executive Team members – the agency’s top managers – have their own laptop computers to stay better connected via email and the internet to response information without relying on the “transfer of paper” that was the norm previously.

Separate spaces for the support teams include an expanded room for the Federal Liaison Team, which has increased its members since Fukushima. The room has space for liaisons from other federal agencies to be part of the NRC response.

And there is a secure conference room and safeguards team room for discussion of classified information. Also in the new Op Center is space for the Headquarters Operations Officers – key personnel who staff the center 24-hours-a-day as the link between the agency and licensees.

The Op Center’s location in the basement of the new building is an additional plus. It has no windows and is considered more secure and robust in the event of a severe weather event that might have rendered the former Op Center temporarily unusable.

All in all, the new Op Center helps the NRC be ready to respond to any incident involving its licensees.

4 responses to “New Op Center Makes NRC Response More Efficient

  1. Dan Williamson December 4, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Perhaps there should be a limit on rhetorical questions per post.

  2. Ace Hoffman (@AceHoffman) December 2, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Where are the identical redundant op-centers located? Without them, this is vulnerable to a single attack. At least I can presume the data is kept in multiple places and there are multiple completely independent electronic channels into this complex? As one of the top targets for Internet security breaches, if not THE top target (and you thought Congress was the only group that desperately wanted to see your top-secret records…) it seems gravely irresponsible to put all your eggs in one basket. Looks awesome, though. 🙂

    Maybe if your op-center was located in the basement of the Pentagon (which appears to be able to survive an airplane strike) I’d feel comfortable with there only being one center and it being all-electronic, but with ~30 years in the computer biz, I’m just not. You need two, at least, and maybe they should be based on completely different, non-redundant technologies.

    I do have a related question about data: Now that all the information is in digital form (at last!), what happens when a congressional investigator wants to explore the records? Surely the trail of their research would NOT be available to NRC staff, right? In other words, Congressional investigator’s clearances would be higher than your own, is that correct? So there simply would be no way for NRC to search the Congressional investigator’s person, or their computers, since the data would all be encrypted with passwords you wouldn’t have?

    We’ve learned from Fukushima that one mistake on the part of the nuclear industry could cost the host country a trillion dollars or more. We also learned — again — that mistakes are bound to happen anywhere, especially in a time of crises. Mistakes in the design, placement, and operation of the General Electric Mark 1 and 2 style reactors are the “root cause” of the ongoing disaster in Fukushima. Grave mistakes continue to occur, such as shoddy construction of the 1000+ radioactive effluent holding tanks. There are nearly two dozen similar GE reactors operating in America, and some of the problems Fukushima revealed cannot be cost-effectively resolved. For example, adding larger vents to the GE Mark style reactors is generally considered cost-effective (except by the utilities and the Congresspersons who support them), but the even-better solution of adding an adequate cooling system so that the vents would never be needed is NOT considered cost-effective, so is that why it’s not required?

    What if Davis-Besse’s rusted-out reactor pressure vessel head’s stainless steel liner had ruptured in 2002, after the RPVH itself had rusted away (the liner was bulging out when the problem was discovered)? Or what if Monticello’s inoperable (for 30 years) Emergency Core Cooling System was actually needed at some point (shipping bolts on the baffles were never removed, which would have blocked the coolant flow completely)? Would the most sophisticated OP Center in the world have been able to stop a meltdown?

    How many reactor companies have similar Op Centers, or can even communicate with you fully electronically if needed? Shouldn’t they all be required to immediately match your capabilities, just in case of an emergency? Shouldn’t the “fleet” owners (such as Exelon and Entergy, etc.) be required to build their own Op Centers, which you could take over if anything were to happen to yours? It might save America a trillion dollars or more, so I think it’s worth considering.

    Does the Op Center have the ability for ANY reactor anywhere in the world to call for help? If not, why not? If the guys in Chernobyl in 1986 had been able to just call you guys up and say, “hey, we want to do this experiment, does it sound safe?” you could have told them it didn’t, right?

    Of course, with no solution to the waste problem, and none in sight, shutting the plants down is still the prudent thing to do. If only we had figured THAT out 65 years ago when the “intractable” problem of the waste first appeared, but it’s never too late to stop making a mistake, and making nuclear waste is a mistake.

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