Hurricane Matthew and the NRC — UPDATE Part II

UPDATE 2:  The NRC’s Region II Incident Response Center was staffed throughout the weekend due to Hurricane Matthew. In all, three plants entered unusual event classifications for storm-related reasons, including electrical grid instability. In addition to the update below on the St. Lucie plant, two other plants, Harris and Robinson, experienced brief losses of offsite power due to the effects of the hurricane. At those two sites, the emergency diesel generators started automatically and provided power until the grid stabilized. — Joey Ledford

UPDATE: While our thoughts are with the people who lost power or suffered damages in the storm, the St. Lucie nuclear plant experienced winds below hurricane strength and did not lose off-site power. The plant’s safety equipment and systems were not affected by the storm and both units remain safely shut down pending a “Disaster Initiated Review.” The review will ensure that evacuation routes are clear and emergency services are available. The units cannot restart until that review is conducted jointly by the NRC and FEMA. The NRC continues to monitor Hurricane Matthew, and will decide later today whether to continue to staff its incident response center in Atlanta. — Joey Ledford

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

It’s hard to believe, but no major hurricane has made landfall in the continental United States since 2005. Hurricane Wilma came ashore in southwest Florida in October of that year as a Category 3 storm, but then skirted the peninsula and went back into the Atlantic.

pathDuring this record respite of 11 years, the NRC never stopped training and preparing for big storms, including major hurricanes. Storm preparations were an important part of the post-Fukushima enhancements that have made U.S. commercial nuclear plants safer.

This week, a mammoth storm known as Hurricane Matthew is stalking Florida’s East Coast, having already taken its toll on Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas. The NRC and the companies that operate nuclear facilities began preparations for Matthew long before its anticipated path was clear.

Late Tuesday, the staff at Florida Power and Light’s St. Lucie plant in Port St. Lucie, not far from the predicted landfall, declared an unusual event, the lowest of NRC’s emergency classifications, because of the hurricane warning. The plant staff began severe weather procedures, which include making sure any equipment or debris that could be affected by wind or water has been removed or secured. Staff also conducted walk downs of important plant systems and ensured emergency supplies were adequate.

Similar work was being done at Turkey Point, south of Miami, another FPL plant, and at Brunswick, a Duke Energy station near Southport, N.C.

The NRC’s resident inspectors at each plant, meanwhile, worked to verify the storm preparations were completed as expected, paying special attention to the condition of emergency diesel generators that would be used if the plants lose offsite power.

The NRC maintains 24-hour staffing at any plant expected to experience hurricane-force winds. Since the resident inspectors live near the plant and need to take care of their families and homes, other agency personnel are dispatched to storm sites to help with staffing. One resident inspector from Tennessee volunteered to drive to southeastern North Carolina to staff Brunswick. Some other inspectors at or near the plants on other inspection duties volunteered to stay and provide staffing.

The NRC’s Region II Incident Response Center in Atlanta will be staffed around the clock during the storm, monitoring its path while keeping in contact with plant operators, NRC on-site inspectors, state emergency officials in the affected states and NRC headquarters.

Previous hurricanes have shown that nuclear plants are robust facilities that can withstand extremely high winds and storm surges. As Matthew approaches, the NRC is working to ensure plant operators have taken actions to protect the plants, safely shut down if necessary and ensure power is available to keep the plants in a safe condition until the storm has passed.

Five Questions with the NRC’s SECY

Annette Vietti-Cook is the NRC’s Secretary of the Commission

  1. How would you describe your job in three sentences or less?

5 questions_9with boxEvery day I work directly with the Commission offices managing the Commission’s decisionmaking process, and as the official record keeper, historian, and meeting coordinator. I oversee the planning of Commission meetings, drafting of Commission decisions, tracking of Commission requirements, and managing of Commission correspondence and records, and rulemaking and adjudicatory dockets. I also work with the agency’s historian.

  1. What is the single most important thing that you do at work?

Communicate effectively. My staff and I work closely and daily with the Commission and their staff as well as with the Executive Director for Operations staff. We provide advice on Commission policies and procedures, help to prepare items for Commission consideration, convey Commission decisions, and prepare for Commission meetings. As the Secretary, I must constructively address issues with the Commission and staff, acknowledge dissenting opinions and use good communication – and good judgement – in a way that ultimately benefits the agency’s performance of its mission.

  1. What is the single biggest challenge you face?

annettefinalTraining, developing, and mentoring employees so my office can provide outstanding support to the Commission. Commissioners come and go, so it’s important that the Office of the Secretary maintain the institutional knowledge of how the Commission does its work. The Internal Commission Procedures, which lay out how all manner of regulatory and policy issues are handled, are vitally important but can never tell the whole story. I’ve been with the agency for 34 years and Secretary for 17 years and many of my staff have similar long tenures. So we believe our institutional knowledge is a real asset.

  1. If you could change one thing at the NRC or within the nuclear industry, what would it be?

Eliminate the requirement that the NRC substantially recover the cost of its annual budget through the imposition of fees collected from NRC licensees. This structure creates the misimpression among some that NRC inappropriately considers fees in carrying out its important safety and security mission. By eliminating fees, the NRC would license and regulate independently through congressionally appropriated funds, just like most other federal agencies.

  1. What one thing about the NRC do you wish more people knew?

The NRC is full of competent, dedicated and hardworking people. There is also a squash court on the roof of the building. Yes, even regulators can have a sense of humor.

Five Questions is an occasional series in which we pose the same questions to different NRC staff members.