NRC Keeps an Eye on Gulf Coast Flooding

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Torrential rains have been battering the Gulf Coast since Friday, but have not adversely affected any of the nuclear power plants in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Arkansas.

louisiana map_sealThough skies have now cleared over Baton Rouge, the area has been especially hard hit by flooding. But this has had no significant impact on the River Bend nuclear power plant, about 25 miles northwest of the city, or the designated routes that would be used to evacuate the public in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The Waterford 3 nuclear plant, located in Killona (about 25 miles west of New Orleans), has been similarly unaffected. “We’ve had some heavy rain here over the weekend but there has not been any real impact on the plant,” said NRC Resident Inspector Chris Speer.

Flooding is one of the many natural hazards that nuclear power plants must be prepared for. Every nuclear power plant must demonstrate the ability to withstand extreme flooding and shut down safely if necessary. Most nuclear power plants have emergency diesel generators that can supply backup power for key safety systems if off-site power is lost.

All plants have robust designs with redundancy in key components that are protected from natural events, including flooding. These requirements were in place before the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011, and have been strengthened since.

As of Tuesday, Arkansas Nuclear One, in Russellville, has gotten about five inches of rain since Friday, NRC Resident Inspector Margaret Tobin said. “It’s a little muddy at the site, but that’s about it.”

At Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi, 20 miles southwest of Vicksburg, only light rain has been reported. “We actually had very little rain at the site, compared to what was expected,” said Matt Young, the NRC’s Senior Resident at the plant.

The NRC is closely following events and getting periodic updates from the National Weather Service on conditions that might affect any of the Gulf Coast nuclear plants. Additionally, the resident inspectors are monitoring local weather conditions to remain aware of conditions that could affect continued safe operations of the plants.

Pokémon Go — Not a Go at Nuclear Plants

Prema Chandrathil
Public Affairs Officer
NRC Region III

The highly popular cellphone game has found its way to a U.S. commercial nuclear power plant.

pokemanThe Pokémon Go game lets users chase and catch virtual creatures with their cellphone cameras. However, Pokémon Go and other games that use the GPS signals in our phones are creating safety and security issues. Local law enforcement officials across the country have cautioned folks to pay attention while playing and be careful not to wander into traffic (warnings that have not always been heeded). The phrase “heads up” takes on new meaning here.

The games have even enticed players to trespass on private property — including the Perry nuclear power plant in northeastern Ohio.

Recently, three teenagers pursued one of the strange looking cartoon creatures into the employee parking lot of the Perry plant, at 3 in the morning! Instead of catching the Pokémon, they were caught by security officers and escorted off the property.

But it could have ended very differently – and much more seriously — for these Pokémon pursuers.

Commercial nuclear plants are among the best-protected facilities in the country. Their security officers are highly trained professionals who carry guns and are authorized to use them in protecting the plant. Though you might not always see the protective measures and many details are not publically available, security is in place. (Click here for more info on the NRC’s security requirements for nuclear power plants.)

So have fun exploring and climbing over rocks searching for those virtual creatures, but the bottom line is be safe while playing these games. A nuclear power plant is not the place to be searching for Pikachu.

 

NRC’s Preparations for Hurricane Season Enable Quick Response – If Necessary

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The hurricane season officially begins next week, and this year hurricane experts are predicting 12-14 named storms in the Atlantic with at least a couple of major hurricanes. After two years of seeing a below average number of storms, some of those experts are saying this could be an unpredictable and potentially dangerous season.

2016 Tropical Weather Outlook MayAs they do prior to every hurricane season, NRC staff members are preparing for the challenge and will be ready for any storms that make landfall and threaten the facilities we regulate. NRC preparations begin with training for all those staff members who might have to respond during a storm, testing of communications systems, and inspections to confirm that nuclear power plants in hurricane-prone areas have completed their extensive hurricane preparations.

The annual hurricane season runs until Nov. 30, and the NRC staff routinely tracks each storm from formation until dissipation, constantly evaluating whether it could pose a threat to U.S. nuclear plants and other NRC-licensed facilities.

If a storm approaches the mainland, the NRC regional offices provide regular updates to the NRC’s Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md. Depending on the location of the storm, the Region II office in Atlanta, the Region I office outside Philadelphia, or the Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, may be involved. These briefings include information about staffing of the regional Incident Response Centers, assignment of additional staff to supplement the NRC resident inspectors at the potentially affected plants, and actions underway to ensure continuous communications with NRC-licensed facilities along the projected path of the storm.

Before a storm even forms, the NRC’s regional offices make sure that appropriate equipment, including satellite phones, are available and operational.

When a storm does form and its projected path shows possible impact on a coastline, one or more of the regional offices begins continuous hurricane tracking using the resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, other federal agencies and commercial weather forecasting services.

Within 48 hours of expected hurricane force winds, NRC officials are dispatched to the State Emergency Operations Centers in the affected states. Additional NRC personnel are identified and placed “on-call” to respond if needed for any storm-induced emergency.

About 12 hours before the arrival of hurricane force winds, the agency will begin receiving continuous status updates from all of the NRC-licensed facilities in the hurricane’s path. Communications links will also be established with state emergency response officials and other federal response agencies.

During a storm’s landfall, NRC staff members maintain close contact with the plant staff and with NRC resident inspectors on site. If normal communications are lost, emergency communications systems are used.

Following any hurricane, the NRC inspectors help assess the extent of any damage to the facility and, if necessary, respond to any storm-induced problems. The agency also works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine when evacuation routes are passable and offsite emergency response organizations will be sufficiently recovered from the hurricane response to resume normal activities.

We all hope 2016’s hurricane season has little or no effect on NRC-regulated facilities and all other areas where people live, but in any case, our advance preparation allows the NRC staff to respond quickly and effectively if a hurricane or major storm does strike.

Throwback Tuesday — The Difference Of A Few Decades

et1991In March 1991, the NRC’s Operations Center was located in the Maryland National Bank Building, in Bethesda, Md., even though the first building of the new, soon-to-be consolidated NRC headquarters complex was occupied in Rockville, Md.

In this photo, then-director of the Division of Safety Systems Analysis, Brian Sheron, briefs the Executive Team during an exercise with the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, in Florida.

At the head of the table (lower left) is Commissioner Ken Rogers, who is joined by a number of high-ranking NRC officials from various offices.

Fast forward to today.

opcentermodernNow, the NRC’s Operations Center is a modern facility using the latest technologies. During this emergency preparedness exercise with the Fermi nuclear power plant, held in April 2014, the Executive Team gets briefings over webcam, while monitoring information on laptops and keeping an eye on the content of simulated social media.

In this exercise, the Executive Team was headed by then-Commissioner George Apostolakis, center, seated.

For more about the NRC’s emergency preparedness activities, visit the agency’s webpage.

 

 

 

Making Recent Safety Enhancements Part of the NRC Routine

Stephen G. Burns
Chairman

The NRC has made great strides to enhance U.S. nuclear power plants’ already robust safety measures in the five years since the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident. We took swift action after the accident in 2011, ordering a variety of upgrades to plant safety. Now we’re to the point of incorporating this work into our ongoing inspection and oversight processes.

NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) stands with Jim Meister, Vice President for Operations Support, Exelon Generation, in front of portable equipment at the Braidwood nuclear plant. The equipment was purchased after Fukushima.
NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) stands with Jim Meister, Exelon’s Vice President for Operations Support, near new portable equipment at the Braidwood nuclear plant.

A key lesson from the accident was that plants must be prepared for events not contemplated when they were designed and constructed. Plants’ strategies to address external events must be flexible enough to deal with variety of circumstances.

Substantial progress has been made towards completing NRC-directed upgrades to address this lesson. Plants are far better prepared for severe events now than they were in 2011.

About half of U.S. commercial reactors have completed integrating portable pumps, generators and other resources and procedures to maintain key safety functions. By the end of the year we expect every U.S. plant to have the physical resources. Almost all the plants will have all their procedures available, and the rest will have most procedures ready to go. The industry also has two national rapid response centers up and running in Phoenix and Memphis with portable equipment that can be dispatched within 24 hours to anywhere in the country if additional help is needed.

More than three quarters of the plants have completed installing equipment to better monitor their spent fuel pools, and we expect every U.S. plant to finish that work by the end of the year. The bulk of the remaining safety-significant work should be done in 2017.

I’ve personally been to nearly a dozen plants since becoming Chairman and have seen first-hand the work that has been done at these sites. The operators of the plants have taken this work very seriously and the amount of equipment purchased and plant modifications made is quite impressive. Equally impressive is the thoroughness reflected in the procedures and training developed to make sure their people are ready and able to spring into action should the worst happen.

The NRC’s requests for U.S. plants to re-examine earthquakes and flooding hazards are also bearing fruit. Every plant has updated its understanding of potential earthquakes at its site. A quarter of the plants have finished their earthquake-related work. The rest are looking at whether their new quake hazard affects risks to a plant’s ability to safely shut down.

While improving flooding hazard information has proven more complex, more than half of the plants have updated their understanding of flooding sources. All the plants will continue examining any risk changes due to revised flooding estimates.

Our next step is to inspect the work that’s been done and to ensure the plants maintain all of that progress. We’re adapting our inspections and other processes to cover these enhancements. We’ve given our Resident Inspectors the handbook for the first of these inspections, in this case looking at the newly integrated portable equipment and resources. The first of those checks was done a few days ago. We’re also updating our assessment process for inspection findings to cover the post-Fukushima upgrades.

Moving examination of these upgrades into our everyday oversight ensures we – and the plants – are vigilant in maintaining this important progress. Our onsite inspectors will keep a constant eye on these upgrades, with help as needed from our regional and headquarters staff.

The NRC has met the challenges raised by the Fukushima accident promptly while maintaining day-to-day safe plant operations. We’ll work hard every day to make certain plants also stay focused on maintaining the progress we’ve made.

NRC Actions Stack up Well Against International Reviews

William Orders
Senior Project Manager
Japan Lessons Learned Division

Ever since the March 2011 nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, regulators around the world have asked “what have we learned?” The Fukushima accident led the nuclear power industry worldwide to reconsider how we approached nuclear safety in the case of extreme natural events. Regulators and the nuclear industry have put a high priority on addressing the accident’s lessons and implementing safety enhancements.

Last year, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a report that took another look at the accident and detailed what was learned. The NRC has reviewed the report to see if it might lead us to additional actions here in the United States.

At this point, we see that either the NRC, the U.S. government, or the nuclear industry are already addressing the IAEA report’s lessons. U.S. actions on these lessons are consistent with the international community’s approach to the issues. A more detailed comparison of the report’s recommendations with relevant U.S. actions is available here.

JLD vertical CReviews of the accident have focused on the effects of earthquakes and floods, as well as positioning plants to deal safely with a complete loss of off-site and back-up power. Nuclear power plants worldwide are addressing these issues with steps that include:

  • re-examining external hazards,
  • improving electrical systems,
  • adding ways to cool the fuel in the reactor core,
  • protecting the reactor containment,
  • adding ways to cool the  spent fuel in storage pools, and
  • developing capabilities to quickly provide equipment and assistance from on-site or off-site emergency preparedness facilities.

The NRC and our international counterparts have compared our post-Fukushima approaches before. In 2014, an IAEA team report looked at several of the lessons the NRC has learned from the accident. The report, after examining our efforts at that time, concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively.” The team also said the NRC’s inspections on Fukushima-related issues were “exemplary.”

As the NRC continues reviewing the IAEA 2015 report in detail, we are heartened that our international counterparts are all addressing the same concerns. Our collective actions are enhancing safety worldwide.

More information on the NRC’s response to the Fukushima accident can be found on NRC’s Japan Lessons Learned website. A description of the accident is available here.

El Nino and NRC Preparedness

F. Paul Peduzzi
Branch Chief
Division of Preparedness and Response

elninoEl Niño is already making itself felt along the West Coast. This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years. It warms sea surface temperatures in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean, shifting average sea level pressure and tropical rainfall in dramatic fashion, and leading to weather pattern changes over parts of the northern and southern hemispheres.

Forecasters expect this year’s El Niño to be one of the strongest ever, based on changes in the sea surface temperatures of the Pacific.

No two El Niño’s are exactly alike, but the pattern generally has these effects:

  • Increased rain and snow across California and the southern United States, with less in the Pacific Northwest and in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys
  • Milder than normal winter across the northern United States
  • More hurricanes than normal in the eastern Pacific and fewer in the Atlantic during hurricane season (June 1 – November 30)

The NRC is alert to potential impacts on our licensees. Facilities such as nuclear power plants are designed to withstand much more severe weather than El Niño typically brings. Nuclear power plants are designed and built to withstand the most severe weather and floods historically reported for their area. Several plants experienced strong El Niño weather patterns in the ‘80s and ‘90s with no major problems.

Following the Fukushima events in Japan in 2011, the plants have enhanced their ability to deal with major floods. For example, additional portable safety equipment, such as pumps and generators, is now available both onsite and offsite.

However, El Niño’s storms could block roadways, making it difficult for plant staff to get to the site and impeding public evacuation routes. Plant operators can use other transportation means to get staff and equipment to the site, if needed. And emergency plans have provisions to clear evacuation routes or use alternate routes. These provisions have been tested before, such as during the Missouri River flooding of 2011

The bottom line? California may be unusually soggy this winter, but the NRC does not expect the current El Niño to cause any safety issues for the nation’s nuclear power plants. As always, we remain vigilant and continue to work with other federal agencies on emergency preparedness and incident response, just in case.