U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Giving Potential Violations Their ‘Due’

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I
 

The NRC abides by a bedrock constitutional principle — due process — when considering enforcement actions against the companies were regulate. A recent NRC enforcement decision helps illustrate this principle.

On April 16, 2013, a system used to cool fuel in the reactor at the Nine Mile Point 1 nuclear power plant was temporarily knocked out of service during a refueling outage. This was due to a combination of maintenance activities, an unplanned loss of onsite electricity and the system being later improperly restored.

After reviewing the event, we told Constellation, the owner of the Scriba, N.Y. plant, on Sept. 23, 2013, we had identified a violation from the event. The violation was preliminarily classified as being of greater than very low safety significance or what we call “greater than green.”

The NRC uses a color-coded system for the ranking violations and determining when enhanced oversight is needed. So a “greater than green” meant the issue was being considered for “escalated enforcement.”

roundtable1Our due process offers the company a chance to meet with us. The company can give us any information we may have missed, provide its perspective on what happened and detail any corrective actions. Constellation met with us in a public enforcement conference on Nov. 1, 2013, at the NRC Region I Office.

Among other things, the company was able to show how reactor operators quickly identified the problem and took steps to address it. What’s more, it demonstrated there were other timely means of detecting the loss of the cooling system — including steam and humidity on the plant’s refueling floor had water begun to boil off – and multiple ways to get more water into the reactor.

Constellation’s arguments, supported by videos and additional analysis, were ultimately convincing.

The NRC staff announced in December the finding was being finalized as “green,” which means of very low safety significance. And the finding won’t result in additional oversight. But NRC inspectors will follow up to make sure the company made changes to prevent a recurrence.

Taking the time to arrive at the correct conclusion, and doing so in an open and transparent manner, is consistent with the NRC’s values. By adhering to due process, we increase the likelihood of arriving at the right place when it comes to enforcement.

Singing From the Same Safety Culture Song Sheet

Ronald Frahm
Senior Reactor Operations Engineer
 

What’s in a word? If words are the currency of communication, then common language is important for smooth interaction without misunderstanding or conflict. Think of the many clichés that make this point: “On the same wavelength,” “speaking the same lingo,” or “lost in translation.”

communicationmessThe NRC and the nuclear power industry have taken a significant step toward improving our communication by adopting common language in the important area of safety culture. Safety culture – the idea that safety comes first – is a priority for the NRC, as expressed in our safety culture policy statement revised in 2011. Over the past few years, NRC staff members have met with industry representatives and other interested parties to agree on common language to express safety culture. To use another cliché, we’re now on the same page.

Now it’s time to put that common verbiage into action. As of January 1, the NRC is integrating this common safety culture language into our Reactor Oversight Process, or ROP. The ROP is the agency’s method of assessing a nuclear power plant’s performance by identifying and responding to problems in seven cornerstones of safety, as well as cross-cutting aspects that impact more than one cornerstone.

Using common safety culture language in the ROP will promote clearer and more consistent communication between the NRC and industry about these cross-cutting aspects.

These are not substantial changes to the ROP. The goals, processes and procedures of our regulatory oversight of nuclear plants have not changed. The changes simply incorporate the common-language terminology into the ROP and do not affect the process for applying cross-cutting aspects to findings or evaluating cross-cutting themes.

For example, “The licensee defines and effectively communicates expectations regarding procedural compliance and personnel follow procedures,” has been replaced with “Individuals follow processes, procedures, and work instructions.”

communicationmessAlso, “The licensee takes appropriate corrective actions to address safety issues and adverse trends in a timely manner, commensurate with their safety significance and complexity” is now rendered as “The organization takes effective correction actions to address issues in a timely manner commensurate with their safety significance.” Simple, straightforward, and less bureaucratic, even if we couldn’t get “commensurate” out of there altogether.

These and other changes implementing the common safety culture language are spelled out in a revised Inspection Manual Chapter 0310. Inspection reports for 2013 as well as the end-of-cycle reports to be issued in March will still use the previous language and guidance. The new language will be for inspections conducted in 2014 and in the mid-cycle assessments to be issued in September.

Going Shopping To Replace Potassium Iodide for Participating States

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

The Department of Health and Human Services, acting on behalf of the NRC, last month issued a procurement order for 14 million tablets of potassium iodide to replenish out-of-date supplies. This drug, also known by its chemical symbol KI, is used to protect the thyroid against radioactive iodine should a nuclear power plant accident occur, and is part of NRC’s program to help states and localities with their emergency response plans.

The NRC first offered KI tablets to states with residents living within the 10-mile emergency protection zone of a nuclear power plant in 2001. The agency recommends that states consider including KI in their emergency preparedness plans and provides it to those states that ask for it. Currently, 25 states have requested and received the pills.

The NRC’s policy is to offer KI to states once every six years to replace pills that may have passed their shelf life. The recent order is the third wave of replenishing KI. While this matter has been subject of some social media attention as perhaps indicative of some imminent threat, supplying KI is nothing new. Including KI in emergency plans is a decades old precaution. However, this is the first time the NRC has used the HHS medical procurement service to order KI. The NRC decided to go through HHS this time in order to leverage federal buying power and reduce costs.

Here are some other facts about KI:

• KI protects the thyroid from iodine-131, a radioisotope that would likely be released into the air during a nuclear power plant accident. It does not protect against all forms of radiation and is to be taken in addition to other protective measures, such as sheltering.

• Residents living near nuclear plants should take KI only when directed by local authorities during an incident – it is not a daily supplement to build up immunity, as some have advertised on the Internet. In fact, daily use can be harmful.

If you live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant and want to inquire about obtaining KI and/or disposing of expired KI, contact your state health authorities.

U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Weather the “Polar Vortex”

 Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I
 

When the temperatures plunge into Arctic territory, there are few parts of the infrastructure not impacted in one way or another. Pipes can freeze, roads and bridges can quickly ice over and car batteries can go dormant.

Now, with what meteorologists are calling a “polar vortex” flooding much of the country with a blast of frigid air, precautions are being taken to guard against potential effects. Count U.S. nuclear power plants among those facilities gearing up for the coldweather2014 version of the Big Chill.

As of Monday afternoon, no plants were reporting any problems of note related to the frigid extremes, but ongoing checks will be in order to ensure that remains the case.

The NRC’s regional offices in the Midwest and Northeast are keeping an eye on plant owners’ responses to the unusually low temperatures. Plants in the affected areas have entered off-normal procedures that entail minimizing regular surveillance activities and increasing the frequency of checks and walkdowns (visual evaluations) of equipment that could be impacted by the temperatures.

NRC Resident Inspectors, who are assigned to specific sites, will continue to monitor the situation. The inspectors use an “Adverse Weather Protection” inspection procedure to guide their assessments of whether plants are ready for extreme temperatures, including the bitter cold. Those reviews are typically done at the start of the season.

“As applicable, verify cold weather protection features, such as heat tracing, space heaters, and weatherized enclosures are monitored sufficiently to ensure they support operability of the system, structure or component (SSC) they protect,” the procedure states in part.

It also instructs inspectors to perform walkdowns to verify the physical condition of weather-protection features.

The NRC has long recognized the need for nuclear plant owners to be on guard for extreme cold-related issues. Along those lines, the agency in January 1998 issued an Information Notice on “Nuclear Power Plant Cold Weather Problems and Protective Measures.” Although such notices do not require a specific action or written response, they do serve to make plant owners aware of possible concerns.

For example, the Information Notice discussed an ice plug that formed on Jan. 8, 1996, at the Millstone Unit 2 nuclear power plant in a service water strainer backwash drain line. Service water refers to water taken from a nearby source of water — be it the ocean, a lake or river — used for cooling purposes in the plant and then returned.

To prevent a recurrence of the problem, the plant owner changed an operating procedure to ensure closer monitoring when service water intake structure temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and to make use of portable heaters or go to manual operation of the strainers.

Nuclear power plants are designed to withstand weather extremes. Nevertheless, NRC inspectors will be on hand to keep a close watch on plant conditions during the “vortex” and beyond.

Update: Nebraska was not exempt from freezing temperatures. On Jan. 9, around 9 a.m. central time, operators shut down Fort Calhoun Station to repair one of six sluice gates after a plant worker discovered ice forming preventing it from closing. The gates, located at the intake structure, control the flow of water from the Missouri river into the plant. All six gates must be functional for the plant to be allowed to operate as part of the flood protection strategy. On Friday, Jan. 10, workers corrected the problem.

Early Sunday morning, during plant start up, operators had to manually shut down the reactor after a control rod would not move as required to due a faulty motor. Sunday, workers repaired the motor and OPPD is currently restarting the plant.

Lara Uselding
Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Nuclear Swords into Electric Power Plowshares: The Megatons to Megawatts Program

Thomas Wellock
Historian
 
Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer
 

You may be surprised to know about 10 percent of recent U.S. electricity production has been fueled by uranium from Soviet nuclear warheads that once targeted the United States. This ironic ending to the Cold War came from the Megatons to Megawatts (MTM) program—a 1993 agreement between the U.S. and Russia to reduce stockpiles of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium.

Megatons_To_Megawatts_Logo2Purchased by private U.S. firms for use in commercial reactor fuel, the final MTM shipment was delivered to the U.S last month. In all, about 20,000 nuclear warheads were eliminated.

The program was the brainchild of MIT international affairs expert Thomas Neff, who proposed it just two months after the failed August 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It grew out of the recognition that the remnants of the former Soviet Union threatened global security and economic stability.

The U.S. and Soviets had signed agreements requiring disposal of large quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Neff worried the desperate economic situation in Russia might lead unemployed Soviet nuclear experts to sell their expertise — or the surplus uranium — to terrorist organizations and rogue nations. Even if sold through legitimate channels, Neff warned, Russia’s weapons material could depress uranium prices and bankrupt Western energy firms.

Neff’s proposed solution closely matched the final agreement. The deal provided trade credits to the Russians for weapons uranium downblended, or diluted, and shipped to the United States over a period of many years. The purchases provided Russia with a regular supply of currency, and the process of converting the highly enriched uranium to lower enrichments suitable for power plants would employ former Soviet experts.

The 1993 agreement was signed by Russian and U.S. negotiators, but the private sector entirely financed the purchases. USEC Inc., a U.S. supplier of uranium to fuel commercial power reactors, bought more than 14,000 metric tons of low enriched uranium from Russian­chartered exporter Tenex. This uranium came from 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium. USEC in turn would deliver the material to U.S. plants that made it into nuclear fuel. Nearly every commercial reactor in the U.S. has bought this fuel and turned it into electricity. Tenex says the material could power a city of one million residents for 500 years.

The agreement encouraged further disarmament as the United States voluntarily downblended a portion of its own uranium stockpile for use in nuclear power plants. “This program represented the pinnacle of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation, and . . . [it] puts another nail in the coffin of the Cold War,” said Bruce Blair, a disarmament advocate.

Although privately financed, Megatons to Megawatts required close supervision by both governments. While the NRC was not directly involved in the negotiations, we did participate in ensuring the program was implemented safely. The NRC licenses and inspects both the plants that made the downblended uranium into fuel and the reactors that burned it.

We are happy to have played a role in closing this chapter of the Cold War.

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