The Inspection Beat Goes on at Watts Bar Unit 2

William Jones
Director of the Division of Construction Projects
Region II

An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff install the reactor pressure vessel inside the containment building at Watts Bar Unit 2.
An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff perform construction activities at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The NRC has issued an operating license to the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in Tennessee, bringing the U.S. to 100 commercial reactors. The plant’s owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority, had restarted construction of the incomplete reactor in 2007 and updated its application for Unit 2’s license in 2009.

Since 2007, NRC inspectors have devoted more than 200,000 hours to supporting the agency’s decision that Unit 2 qualifies for a license. There’s more to do, however, before Unit 2 starts splitting atoms and generating electricity, and the NRC’s going to keep an eye on all of that.

The NRC’s two permanent Resident Inspectors at Watts Bar have another full-time resident inspector and additional regional inspectors on site during this period. The inspectors and NRC management follow a well-defined process to monitor a plant as it starts up for the first time.  One of the most obvious steps we’ll monitor is when TVA loads the uranium fuel into the Unit 2 reactor.

Once Unit 2 is ready for the initial reactor startup, the NRC staff will verify TVA has properly calibrated the instruments that monitor the chain reaction even at the lowest sustainable level. The plant operators must also show they can manually shut off the chain reaction. When all those steps are done, the NRC inspectors will watch the operators’ actions as they let Unit 2 start splitting a very small number of atoms.

The next step involves testing the reactor at very low power levels. The chain reaction is affected by changes in coolant water temperature and chemicals in the water. The NRC inspectors will examine the low-power tests to ensure the plant has properly measured changes in the reaction.

As each of these tests is passed, Unit 2 will increase power in small steps and examine the reactor’s response to abnormal events. For instance, if the plant’s turbine stops running the reactor’s heat has lost its normal outlet, so the reactor must shut down. The reactor must also respond properly to shutdown commands from alternate control stations and a simulated loss of power from the electric grid.

If TVA successfully completes all of these steps, Unit 2 will be ready to add about 1,100 megawatts to the electric grid in the Southeast. During this entire process, the NRC’s inspectors will also be gathering and analyzing the information needed to gauge Unit 2’s safety performance under the agency’s Reactor Oversight Process. This process will guide NRC actions at Unit 2 as long as the plant continues to operate.

Counting the Steps to a Final Watts Bar Unit 2 Decision

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The NRC’s Commissioners have given the staff the authority to issue the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a full-power operating license for Unit 2 at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant site in Tennessee. That permission has some strings attached, however, so we’re still months away from our final licensing decision.

wattsbarconstructionsriIf TVA is issued the license, Watts Bar 2 will be the first U.S. nuclear power plant to start operating since 1996, when Watts Bar 1 came online. TVA still has to satisfy the staff that several regulatory requirements for safe operation of Unit 2 have been met. We’re finishing up the licensing and inspection activities we need to conclude TVA is ready to load fuel and operate the reactor, which is near Spring City, Tenn.

We have to be satisfied not only that Unit 2 is safe to operate, but also that TVA can safely transition to operating two reactors at the site. We’re completing a few licensing actions needed to support dual-unit operation at Watts Bar. TVA also has to pass our remaining operational readiness inspections.

Other upcoming milestones include getting a recommendation from the NRC’s Region II Administrator, who has oversight responsibility for all inspections performed at Watts Bar 2. We also need to issue a couple supplements to the reactor’s Safety Evaluation Report.

TVA’s progress in completing construction and testing of Watts Bar 2 will directly influence our completion of the milestones. We may be able to make a licensing decision later this year. TVA has said repeatedly, however, that the actual operating license date depends on several factors and could shift as the final months’ work is completed. While we take TVA’s schedule into consideration for planning our licensing and inspection work, our priority is always on ensuring safety.

If we conclude Unit 2 is safe and ready to receive a license, TVA will still have to successfully complete several tests, including running the reactor at gradually increasing power levels, before the reactor can provide electricity to the grid. The NRC website has more information on the past few years of Watts Bar Unit 2’s licensing and inspection activities.

Listen In On Our Watts Bar Unit 2 Meeting with TVA

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

 
The NRC’s been closely observing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s work in completing Unit 2 at the wattsbarWatts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn. Our meeting tonight will discuss where TVA stands in its effort to get an operating license for Unit 2.

If you can’t make it in person, we’re offering a teleconference and Web-based access to the meeting presentation. You can get the phone and webinar details from me or my NRC co-worker Christopher Even. For those who can attend, we’ll be available to answer questions and discuss issues with local residents and interested members of the public.  

During the meeting we’ll lay out the inspections and licensing activities the NRC must complete before we could decide whether Watts Bar 2 qualifies for an operating license. Some of our senior managers will explain how we’ve reached this point and what we need to see before we could conclude that the plant is safe to operate.

While we’re still reviewing a few issues, all the information we’ve seen so far indicates TVA is on track to meet the safety and security requirements for a reactor operating license.

If we issue Watts Bar Unit 2 an operating license, TVA would still have to load fuel and begin a series of tests during plant startup and a gradual increase in power output. The NRC would continue inspecting and overseeing the completion of these startup activities prior to Unit 2 generating full power and starting commercial operation. If licensed, Unit 2 would be the first plant to begin commercially operating in the U.S. since Watts Bar Unit 1 started in 1996. For more information please visit the NRC public webpage on Watts Bar Unit 2.

Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Watts Bar Special Projects Branch
 

Unit 1 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., has a claim to fame as the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century. Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority aspires to have its sister reactor (Watts Bar Unit 2) make its own historic claim.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.
Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

If the NRC concludes that the reactor is safe to operate and approves its operating license next year, Watts Bar Unit 2 could become the first new commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in the 21st century.

To understand a little of the history of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, let’s rewind to a time when Schoolhouse Rock premiered and the first mobile phone call was made in New York City — a time predating the NRC. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlighted construction of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 under the “two-step licensing process,” where construction permits and operating licenses were issued separately.

In 1985, construction quality issues at its plants caused TVA to stop work at both Watts Bar Units. Eventually, TVA resolved the issues and completed construction of Unit 1, and the NRC issued its operating license in 1996.

Fast-forward to more recent activities. TVA decided in 2007 to reboot the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction and licensing process. They submitted an update to their original license application to the NRC in 2009.

Other recent applicants have elected to use the combined license application process, where we issue a single license to both construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. However, because of the unique history of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA chose to continue under the two-step licensing process. So, NRC staff developed a regulatory framework and established a licensing approach tailored specifically to the project.

We updated our construction inspection program associated with the two-step licensing process to provide guidance that reflects current NRC practices. For example, the NRC staff identified areas for further inspection at Unit 2 by screening applicable communications, allegations and other open items in the review.

The NRC staff also developed inspection guidance specific to TVA’s refurbishment program, which replaces or refurbishes systems and components at Watts Bar Unit 2. TVA’s resolution of key safety issues and the continued progress of construction inspection activities drive our review schedule.

If the operating license is issued next year, the NRC’s job doesn’t just end. We’d continue to inspect start-up testing required for power ascension and to oversee that Unit 2 transitions into the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process before it can begin producing commercial power.

And, of course, the Resident Inspectors, the agency’s eyes and ears at the plant, would continue to carry out day-to-day inspection work to ensure safety and security is monitored and inspected during licensing and throughout the transition to commercial operation.

For more information about the Watts Bar Unit 2 project, visit the NRC’s website. There will be a Commission briefing Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. on the license application review. You get details about the briefing from the meeting notice. We’ll also do a live webcast.

Checking the Links in the Nuclear Supply Chain

Mary Anderson
Vendor Inspector
Office of New Reactors

 

The NRC’s focus on nuclear power plant safety doesn’t stop at the plants. Since the 1970s (at that time under the Atomic Energy Commission), NRC inspectors have kept a watch on the companies that provide safety-related components and services to U.S. plants.

 magnifyingglassThe agency believes plants and vendors have effective quality assurance programs in place to proactively prevent the use of counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. These programs include careful supplier selections, effective oversight of sub-suppliers, and the authority to challenge a part’s “pedigree” when necessary. 

The NRC oversees these quality activities by inspecting nuclear power plants and their vendors. Vendor inspection can include site visits to production facilities. We create and share information and guidance for the nuclear industry to improve detection of counterfeit and fraudulently marketed products. We also incorporate this information into our inspection programs. The NRC has yet to see any instance of these items in safety-related systems in U.S. plants, but constant vigilance by the licensees and the NRC is essential to make sure it stays that way.

 These days our Vendor Inspection Center of Expertise operates out of the Office of New Reactors to cover both operating reactors and those under construction. NRC staff experts inspect vendors, and observe when plants audit their suppliers, to determine if the plants are properly overseeing their supply chain. Importantly, the NRC also verifies that the plants and their vendors comply with our quality assurance criteria and our “Part 21” requirements for reporting defects and noncompliance, as well as applicable codes and standards.

 The center’s staff also inspect companies applying for design certificates, early site permits or combined licenses. We check on whether the applicants have effective quality assurance processes and procedures for activities related to their applications.

 Right now, we’re working on several vendor-related issues, including evaluating the industry’s process for safely upgrading commercial products that aren’t specifically made for nuclear applications to be used in some plant systems. Common items such as gaskets, nuts and bolts, and electrical relays could be acceptable for nuclear plant use, for example.

 We’re updating and simplifying Part 21, the NRC regulation that covers counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. We’re also confirming effective controls are in place to prevent such items from making their way into the U.S. safety-system supply chain. We’re clarifying the processes for evaluating and reporting defects, and the acceptance criteria for off-the-shelf commercial products. The Center is developing regulatory guides so plants and vendors better understand these processes.

 The NRC’s vendor workshop in Portland, Ore., gave us a forum to put this issue in the spotlight. Among a range of vendor topics, this year’s workshop included an industry perspective on counterfeit, fraudulent, and suspect items.

 The NRC has also been actively involved with our international partners to address the risk of counterfeit and fraudulent items. We’ve collaborated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency to share best practices and recommend options to strengthen inspection programs and increase information sharing.

Starting a Reactor Design Review the Right Way

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
 

A few months ago, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. gave the NRC an application to certify the company’s Advanced Power Reactor 1400 design for use in the U.S. We’d been having “pre-application” discussions with the company since April 2010.

In September of this year, the company felt its information was ready for a full review. After our acceptance check of the application, however, we’ve decided the process should remain at the pre-application stage.

While most of the application’s sections and chapters have enough information for the NRC to review, there are important exceptions. For example, our technical experts don’t see a clear path for predictably and efficiently reviewing important areas such as instruments and controls, how human actions affect reactor operations, and assessing risk.

We also didn’t see enough detail for some specific technical issues, such as reactor coolant pump design, potential corrosion of some internal reactor parts and protecting plant staff from radiation. Other areas referenced technical reports to be submitted in the future.

At this point it’s the company’s decision on how to proceed – if they wish to continue pre-application meetings and related discussions, we’ll certainly do so. The formal review, however, will have to wait until the NRC is satisfied the application has enough information for our staff to create a reasonable, reliable schedule and milestones for the certification process.

Let’s be clear – none of this represents any sort of NRC technical conclusion regarding the Korean reactor design. We’re well aware that other countries are building or considering the design, and we continue to work with a multinational group discussing this and other new reactor designs. This decision doesn’t set any precedents, either. We’ve previously decided against accepting the initial applications for both a U.S.-based design certification and a new reactor operating license. The NRC also followed this path for a couple of applications to renew existing U.S. reactor licenses.

The bottom line is that the NRC must ensure proposed reactor designs can meet our safety requirements. We owe it not only to the public to do that job properly, but also to applicants to do so effectively and predictably. The best way to do that is to have the appropriate information in hand before we begin our work.

Fifty Years of Laying Down the Law on Things Nuclear

Roy Hawkens
Chief Administrative Judge
ASLB Panel
 

Fifty years ago, the U.S. was performing its first nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, the Beach Boys introduced “surfin’ ” music, and three prisoners supposedly became the first and last to ever successfully escape from the prison on Alcatraz. And the first Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) was created, and presided over a hearing on a proposed new nuclear reactor.

ASLBs independently review the NRC’s actions to ensure they follow not only U.S. law, including the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, but also existing agency regulations and past precedent. A Board’s rulings can make the NRC staff reconsider technical and legal conclusions they may have reached on a matter, and can even mean denial of license applications or amendments. Board decisions, though, can be appealed to the five-member Commission.

ALSB Panel Chief Administrative Judge Roy Hawkens (center) discusses Board business with ASLB Panel Associate Chief Administrative Judge Paul Ryerson (left) and ASLB Judge Alex Karlin in the Board’s Hearing Facility at NRC Headquarters.
ALSB Panel Chief Administrative Judge Roy Hawkens (center) discusses Board business with ASLB Panel Associate Chief Administrative Judge Paul Ryerson (left) and ASLB Judge Alex Karlin in the Board’s Hearing Facility at NRC Headquarters.

The original Atomic Energy Act in 1954 called for a single, legally-trained “hearing examiner” – today we’d say “administrative law judge” – to preside over legal and technical challenges to nuclear licensing and regulation. Later, when Congress amended the law in August 1962, the NRC’s predecessor agency was able to use, instead, an approach that more appropriately addressed the relevant legal, scientific and regulatory issues — three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards that included one or more judges with scientific expertise.

The revised law’s section 191 generally calls for a Board to have two technical members and a chairman “qualified in the conduct of administrative proceedings,” a legislative term-of-art for “lawyer.” The Atomic Energy Commission initially staffed these Licensing Boards using a pool of four attorneys (three of whom were already hearing examiners) and 11 technical specialists in areas including physics, nuclear engineering and nuclear chemistry.

The Board approach was put into practice in November 1962, for the Power Reactor Development Corp. case involving the Michigan-based Fermi I reactor. A week later the AEC appointed another Board to handle an uncontested construction permit case for a proposed Babcock and Wilcox test reactor near Lynchburg, Va. The Babcock and Wilcox Board conducted the first ASLB evidentiary hearing in Lynchburg on Dec. 10, 1962, and issued the first Board initial decision on Jan. 14, 1963.

In April 1967, the AEC created a process by which individuals from a panel of judges are assigned to particular Boards. Today’s NRC refers cases to the ASLB Panel’s chairman, who selects judges from among the Commission-appointed pool of full-time and part-time members. All told, between November 1962 and today, these special judges have presided over some 900 cases, covering not only issuing and renewing nuclear power reactors licenses, but also nuclear fuel cycle issues such as uranium enrichment.

The Boards’ work also examines licensing various medical, academic, and industrial uses of nuclear materials, as well as high and low-level nuclear waste disposal facilities (such as dry cask spent fuel storage); reactor and materials site decommissioning; and cases involving enforcement orders and civil penalties.

As ASLBs have presided over all these cases, the Panel’s pool of experts has expanded beyond law, nuclear engineering, and physics. Over the years, Board members have had expertise in such disciplines as health physics, medicine, chemistry, marine and land biology, ecology and environmental science, oceanography, geology and geophysics, economics, and mechanical, civil, sanitary, and environmental engineering. The five-member NRC Commission appoints both the full-time and part-time Panel members for their technical and legal expertise.