U.S. NRC Blog

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NRC’s Supporting Role in NASA’s Mars 2020 Launch

Don Helton
Senior Reliability and Risk Engineer

global-color-views-mars-pia00407-full“Outer space” may not come to mind when you think about the NRC. But we’re excited to be involved with NASA in the planning for a 2020 launch of another Mars rover.

As explained by NASA:

The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Designed to advance high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, the mission would address key questions about the potential for ancient life on Mars. The mission would also provide opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. The mission would take advantage of a favorable launch opportunity in 2020 when Earth and Mars are in ideal positions in their orbits for a Mars landing in early 2021.

So what does planetary exploration have to do with the NRC? Well, like past missions of this type, the Mars 2020 mission will use a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator – which goes by the fancy acronym of MMRTG. That’s a fancy name for using the radioactive decay of plutonium to produce electrical power needed to run the rover and its instruments.

mars-2020-rover-cad-diagram-pia20759-fullSince the NRC regulates the safe use of radioactive materials, we are part of the Mars 2020 Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel that NASA has convened to assure the safety of the launch. This process was originally put in place by Presidential directive and is used each time the U.S. prepares for this type of launch. In addition to NASA and the NRC, the panel includes members from the Department of Energy (which builds and owns the MMRTG provided to NASA), the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I am honored to serve as the NRC-appointed technical advisor to the panel. The panel’s job is to prepare a Nuclear Safety Evaluation Report — which will be delivered to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of NASA’s request for the President’s authorization of the launch. The panel will evaluate the potential radiological hazards associated with the launch, and the methods used to mitigate the risks.

The NRC has served a similar role in other NASA launches over the past several decades, most recently with the 2011 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its rover, Curiosity. In addition to this important activity, the NRC and NASA share knowledge in safety, reliability, and risk analysis methods and applications though a Memorandum of Understanding and other interactions.

NRC policy requires other federal agencies to reimburse us for providing services that aren’t part of our statutory mission. So NASA will reimburse us for labor and travel costs associated with our service on the launch safety review panel. In other words, NRC’s licensees (such as nuclear power plants) don’t end up footing the bill for NRC’s participation in this activity.

More on the Mars 2020 mission can be found at NASA’s website, and in the associated Final Environmental Impact Statement associated with this mission.

REFRESH — Where There’s Steam, There’s … a Steam Generator

Kenneth Karwoski
Senior Advisor for Steam Generators

refresh leafWhen the NRC talks about “steam generators,” we’re not talking about teakettles. Steam generators provide vital technical and safety functions at many U.S. nuclear power plants.

In the United States, steam generators are only found in pressurized-water reactors, one of the two types of U.S. reactors. There can be two to four steam generators for each reactor unit. The generators mark the spot where two closed loops of piping meet. The first loop sends water past the reactor core to carry away heat, and this loop is at such high pressure that the water never boils. The second loop is at a lower pressure, so the water in this loop turns to steam and runs the plant’s turbine to generate electricity.

The steam generator’s main technical job is to let the first loop pass its heat to the second loop as easily as possible. To do this, a steam generator packs thousands of small tubes closely together, allowing the maximum area for heat to pass through the tubes and into the second loop’s water.

At the same time, the steam generators provide an important safety barrier – the first loop can contain radioactive material, so the tubes must keep the two loops of water separate. NRC rules require plants to closely monitor the second loop and immediately shut the reactor down if a tube leak exceeds very strict limits.

pwr[1]The NRC’s rules for inspections, maintenance and repair of steam generator tubes help ensure the tubes continue providing the safety barrier. If an inspection shows a tube is starting to get too thin, the plant will repair or even plug a tube to maintain safety.

Steam generator tube material has improved over time. The first steam generators had tubes made from a type of stainless steel that experience showed could be corroded by the chemicals, temperatures and pressures in the first and second loop. Over time, plants have replaced those steam generators with ones using more advanced alloys that are less likely to corrode.

Steam generator replacement only happens when the reactor is shut down for refueling, and plant owners bring in hundreds of specialized workers to safely remove the old generators and install the new ones. The old generators have to be safely disposed of as low-level radioactive waste.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous posts. This first ran in July 2013.

NRC Begins Significant Activity under Heightened Oversight at Pilgrim Nuclear Plant

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

A significant activity at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant gets underway today when a team of inspectors arrives at the Plymouth, Mass., facility to examine a variety of aspects of its operation.

Included on the 20-member team will be inspectors tasked with evaluating the state of equipment reliability, human performance, plant procedures and the plant’s corrective action program.

What’s more, the team will look carefully at the plant’s safety culture. Among other things, safety culture encompasses the willingness of plant employees to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisal.

This inspection is being performed as part of NRC increased oversight of Pilgrim, which was initiated in September 2015. That occurred after performance issues triggered a change in where the plant falls on the agency’s Action Matrix. The matrix uses inspection findings and performance indicators to guide the level of scrutiny at each plant.

The “95003” inspection process spells out the steps to be taken by the NRC staff to ensure a plant’s owner has taken the appropriate actions to remedy deficiencies. Two earlier team inspections, carried out in January and April, were also part of this oversight regimen.

The inspection beginning today will involve three weeks of on-site reviews. Any findings coming out of the evaluation will be made available in a report due out within 45 days of the inspection’s conclusion.

More information on the NRC review activities regarding Pilgrim can be found on a webpage devoted to that subject.

Have a Safe and Happy Thankgiving

Time to Mark Your Calendars for the NRC’s Biggest Conference

Stephanie West
Public Affairs Specialist

 March 14, 15 and 16 boast some interesting historical events. Albert Einstein was born, the first internet domain name was registered and the first issue of the Federal Register was published. These dates will be noteworthy in 2017, as well, as this is when the NRC’s 29th Annual Regulatory Information Conference will be held in Rockville, Md.

save-the-date-for-web_smEach year, this conference – also just known as “the RIC” — brings together regulators, industry officials and interested members of the public. The RIC provides an opportunity to exchange information, engage in meaningful dialogue and hear diverse perspectives about nuclear reactor and materials safety and security and issues being addressed through NRC-sponsored research.

Attendees can attend plenary and technical presentations, network at poster and tabletop sessions during breaks, attend lunchtime workshops and sign up to take a tour of the NRC Operations Center – or tune into the RIC’s digital channels.

While this annual event has evolved into a large public meeting now attracting about 3,000 attendees and participants from all over the world, that wasn’t always the case.

In its inaugural year in 1989, the RIC had only about 500 attendees mostly from industry, and the focus of the conference was primarily on reactor regulation. The nuclear industry in the mid-1980s was faced with implementing many of the post-Three Mile Island regulatory changes in a heightened, and tightened oversight environment. This made for a challenging relationship between the industry and its regulator. The RIC was envisioned as a forum for non-confrontational communications.

ricblogIn that first year, conference presentations were given only by NRC staff, and while feedback seemed to indicate an appreciation for hearing from the people making the day-to-day decisions, the NRC saw an opportunity to improve the RIC by talking less and listening more. Starting in 1990, industry representatives were invited to participate in discussion panels, still a key feature of the conference today.

And since participants expressed interest in policy issues as well as regulatory matters, the NRC Chairman and Commissioners were featured more prominently. In the post 9/11 environment, and in light of events like Hurricane Katrina, the RIC expanded to include perspectives from state and local officials who are part of emergency preparedness and incident response for the plants in their communities.

Recognizing the importance of all perspectives, even those critical of the nuclear industry and its regulator — groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists — have also joined some RIC panels.

Interest in the RIC extends beyond a national audience. International representation has increased with attendees from more than two dozen countries. The RIC is an opportunity for sharing different perspectives on emerging safety and security issues facing the domestic and international nuclear community.

Public accessibility to the RIC has greatly increased over the years. Making use of technology, the NRC reaches out beyond the walls of the conference rooms. The NRC uses its website and social media platforms to share RIC information by web streaming Commission plenary and some of the breakout sessions and posting presentations and posters on the NRC website.

The agency tweets relevant conference information from a dedicated RIC Twitter account. Images and information from the RIC are posted on the NRC’s Flickr and Facebook pages. And the agency live tweets from the Commissioner plenaries and several of the technical sessions using its primary Twitter account. A link to the RIC’s mobile friendly website will be activated at a later date making it easier to access information from hand-held devices.

The RIC is free and only requires attendees to register. Registration can be done online beginning in January 2017 or in person during the conference.

Learn more about the history of the NRC’s biggest public conference in a video posted on the agency’s YouTube channel Moments in NRC History: Regulatory Information Conference – 25 years.

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