U.S. NRC Blog

Transparent, Participate, and Collaborate

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Personal Accountability Supports an Organization’s Safety Culture

Stephanie Morrow
Safety Culture Program Manager

Personal accountability is one of the traits of a positive safety culture as outlined in the NRC’s Safety Culture Policy Statement. It’s defined as “all individuals take personal responsibility for safety.” But what does that really mean “in the real world” of the day-to-day operations of an NRC licensee?

I recently had an “aha moment” about the important role each employee plays in an organization when I accompanied a family member to the emergency room.

I could immediately see how there are many employees beyond the doctors and nurses who have a direct impact on the quality of patient care. These employees ranged from the person who wipes down the surfaces we come in contact with, to reduce the transfer of germs and bacteria; to the individuals who ensure paperwork is accurate and maintained in a secure and private system of records; to the patient advocate who ensures you understand the information you need to make informed decisions. There are also employees who ensure you are physically safe by monitoring the facility and ensuring that individuals who enter the hospital have an appropriate reason for being there. In a hospital, some of these employees are volunteers who recognize the important role their hospital plays in their community.

So the “aha” moment was that it’s not just one group—like the managers or front line employees—who support an organization’s safety culture. Instead, it’s the combined efforts of all people in the organization supporting the safety mission.

To apply this to the NRC environment, engineers at a nuclear power plant support the mission and contribute to a positive safety culture by ensuring design documentations are up-to-date. Administrative staff supports the mission by ensuring those documents are properly formatted and filed in the organization’s record management system. Janitorial contractors support the mission by ensuring that facilities are safe and clean. Radiation control professionals support their organization’s safety mission by following procedures to ensure that radiation and radioactive materials are used safely.

Whatever one’s role, he or she impacts the health, safety and underlying culture of the organization. Personal accountability means that every member of the organization takes ownership for their job and appreciates the role they play in supporting the organization’s overall safety mission. When employees demonstrate personal accountability, they are helping to shape and maintain a positive safety culture in their organization.

And a positive safety culture means a safer environment for all of us.

NRC Science 101: Understanding Ionizing Radiation – It’s Not That Bohr-ing!

Harry Anagnostopoulos
Health Physicist

science_101_squeakychalkIn this post, we will be discussing ionizing radiation. But to do that, we first have to talk about radiation, in general, and then build up to the concept of ionization.

In previous NRC Science 101 posts, we’ve talked about the composition of an atom, including electrons, protons and neutrons. In 1913, physicist Niels Bohr made adjustments to an earlier model which imagined that the structure of an atom was similar to a solar system: electrons in circular orbits around a “sun” otherwise known as an atomic nucleus.

While modern atomic science has a more accurate understanding of the atom, Bohr’s model is still useful. It is easy to visualize and helps us to think about the relationship between electrons and energy. So, for the purposes of this post, let’s use Bohr’s atomic model.

Radiation is simply the transfer of energy through a medium. The medium can be anything: water, air or even the vacuum of outer-space. The transfer of energy can be carried out by particles or by electromagnetic waves.

Let’s conduct a small experiment. Imagine putting your face close to (but not touching) a bare 100-watt light bulb in a lamp. If you did this, and closed your eyes, could you still tell if the light was on? Could you feel the heat on your face, even though you are not touching the bulb?

Of course you could. That’s radiation! Light, heat, pressure waves in the air (sound), radio signals, and x-rays are all forms of radiation.

atom2As noted in prior NRC Science 101 posts, the core of an atom (the nucleus) is surrounded by orbiting electrons, like planets or comets around a sun. The number of electrons (each with one negative electric charge) usually equals the number of positive charges in the center (from an equal number of protons). These charges cancel out. However, if an orbiting electron is pushed out of its orbit (due to it absorbing energy from an outside source), the charges are now unequal.

The result? An “ion pair” has been formed. The creation of an “ion pair” is called . . . ionization.

Ionizing radiation is radiation with enough energy to create ion pairs in atoms. It is ionizing radiation that is of particular interest to the NRC because of its potential to cause health effects (as will be discussed in a future post).

cometearthTo help you visualize this, think again about Bohr’s model. Imagine a comet (standing in place of an electron) passing through our solar system. As the comet approaches the sun, it feels an intensifying push as light from the sun imparts more and more energy to the comet. Eventually, there is so much “push” that the comet either changes speed or changes direction. Now where will it go? Will it now be on course to strike a planet or will it veer out of our solar system? It’s exactly what could happen to an electron in the subatomic universe it occupies.

But this example is nothing compared to the bizarre realm of atomic physics where a solar system (an atom) might spit out a mini-version of itself, split into two, or where two twin comets (electrons) might appear out of nothing! And there’s more! However, you will have to wait until a later post.

How Boots on the Ground Put Eyes on the Problem

Diane Screnci
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region I

The importance of paying close attention to what’s different day-to-day led to two recent inspection findings at nuclear power plants in Region I.

NRC Resident Inspector Douglas Dodson  is always looking closely at systems at the Ginna nuclear power plant.

NRC Resident Inspector Douglas Dodson is always looking closely at systems at the Ginna nuclear power plant.

Scaffolding is sometimes erected at nuclear plants to allow workers to reach areas or equipment they couldn’t reach otherwise, the same as at other facilities. While walking down the plant last August, the Ginna resident inspector noticed temporary scaffolding was preventing full operation of a sprinkler system. When looking into it further, the inspectors learned workers had not received prior approval by the on-site fire department to block the sprinkler, as required by plant procedures.

After being notified of the finding, the company took immediate action to correct the scaffolding and placed the issue in its corrective action program. However, this was the 13th issue related to scaffolding at Ginna since September 2012 and NRC inspectors documented this performance deficiency in their quarterly inspection report. The resident inspectors will continue to follow the company’s corrective actions to assure they’re effective and comprehensive.

The NRC resident inspectors at Peach Bottom also had an inspection finding related to scaffolding. During an August inspection to ensure that changes made for a Unit 3 refueling outage hadn’t led to any new radiological hazards that could impact the onsite workers, the inspectors found some temporary scaffolding made it possible to access a locked high radiation area.

It seems the scaffolding would have allowed someone to reach a permanent ladder that led to a high radiation area. There also were no signs to alert workers to the radiological conditions despite a requirement that such areas be posted and controlled to avoid unnecessary worker exposure.

Based on the inspectors’ feedback, the company posted workers in the area until it could take more permanent action to prevent access to the area. After more questions by the resident inspectors, the company performed a thorough review of both units (called an extent-of-condition review) and found twelve additional areas that required enhanced controls/postings. An NRC inspection report documented the finding.

These are two good examples of inspectors remaining aware of changing conditions and activities taking place in the plant. It also shows the inspectors asking the important question “have you considered the extent of condition?” This review may uncover a programmatic issue and/or increase the risk significance depending upon the condition of other similar systems, structures or components.

Appreciating a “Thumbs-Up” From Our Overseas Peers

Jennifer Uhle
Deputy Director
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

It’s always great to hear people use words such as “effective,” “exemplary” and even “inspiration” to describe the job you’re doing. It’s even better when those people are your international peers, talking about such topics as the NRC’s response to the March 2011 Fukushima accident.

IAEA_404Five senior nuclear regulators from Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, along with International Atomic Energy Agency staff, just spent a week examining our work. This Integrated Regulatory Review Service team is part of an IAEA program that independently reviews a country’s nuclear regulator. We greatly appreciate their putting so much time and effort into the visit. I oversaw the agency’s responses to the team, and I’m proud of how our staff earned such high marks.

The IRRS report talks a lot about our Fukushima work. It also discusses our response to a 2010 IRRS visit that looked in detail at how the NRC regulates nuclear power plants. The team reviewed our immediate response to the accident. They then looked at our ongoing effort to enhance U.S. reactor safety based on what the accident taught us. They concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively … in the interests of the public health and safety in both the U.S. and Japan.”

The team said our Near-Term Task Force report was “a source of inspiration for many regulatory bodies worldwide.” They also looked at how we’ve inspected U.S. reactors on Fukushima-related issues. They called that work “exemplary.” We’re honored our approach to learning from Fukushima and acting on that knowledge is so well-respected. We also appreciate their noting there’s still more to do in working all the Fukushima-related changes into our regulations.

We’re pleased that our peers felt the NRC’s efforts have properly answered almost every 2010 recommendation or suggestion about how we oversee nuclear power. They also noted how well we’ve been learning from relevant events in non-nuclear industries. They also suggested we develop a more orderly process for a U.S. reactor to move from operation to decommissioning. We can always get better as an agency, so we’re going to see how best we can work on that suggestion.

The NRC understands how valuable peer review is, so we’ll continue to support IRRS missions worldwide. We’ll also work with the IAEA to see how additional visits to the U.S. might fit into our future schedule.

Bringing Fire Protection Into Focus

Daniel Frumkin
Senior Fire Protection Engineer

The NRC’s fire protection staff and graphic artists have worked together to create a new introduction to our website’s fire protection pages. The illustrations for the “Prevention,” “Suppression” and “Safe Shutdown” tabs highlight the details in each area of fire protection.

Fire Protection infographic_r11Prevention is a combination of training, NRC inspections and procedures to keep potential fire starters such as welding under control. U.S. reactors have improved their prevention efforts over time. In 1985 they reported 22 significant fires. By the late 1990s, even though more reactors were running, the annual reporting numbers had fallen by more than half. In 2011 U.S. plants reported only six significant fires – less than one fire for every 10 operating reactors.

The next layer of protection involves fighting fires if they occur at or near a reactor. Plants’ fire detection systems are a lot like the smoke detectors in your house. When these detectors go off, however, trained firefighters show up with extinguishers and fire hoses. Many key plant areas also have automatic sprinkler systems. Plants also have plenty of firefighting water available and can get that water onto a fire using onsite staff and equipment or fire engines from nearby communities.

Even with all these measures, U.S. plants must still be able to safely shut down if a fire breaks out. The fire protection approach puts barriers between each reactor’s multiple sets of shutdown equipment, so a fire can’t disable all the equipment at once. The power and control cables are separated to make sure that those systems are available to shut the plant down.

Plants also have alternate control stations if fires disrupt the control room’s ability to manage the situation. The plants have emergency power sources, both installed large diesel generators and portable equipment the NRC required after 9/11. These sources help ensure fires outside the reactor can’t deprive systems of the electricity they need.

Check out the new graphics and fire protection web pages. We hope this information makes the topic easier to understand and gives you a better sense of how layers of protection help ensure nuclear plants remain safe from fires.

%d bloggers like this: