The Job of a Health Physicist at the NRC

The Office of New Reactors (NRO) evaluates designs for new reactors and license applications to make sure they meet the necessary laws and regulations. NRO staffers complete these reviews after we’ve gathered the information we need to conclude the design or proposed reactor can protect public health and safety and the environment.

I’m one of nine NRO health physicists who participate in these reviews. We work to ensure the plant will protect people from the reactor’s radiation, both during normal operation and during accidents. We have engineering or physical science degrees, and our training focuses on radiation sources in a nuclear reactor, how they could impact people and the environment, and how to avoid unnecessary radiation exposure.

Our work helps ensure that new reactors’ structures, systems and components will minimize radiation exposures to plant personnel and members of the public — to the extent reasonable with modern technology. The reviews also consider risks from hazards that are not radiological, so that when we reduce radiation risk we don’t inadvertently increase risk from other hazards.

NRO health physicists also review the operational programs and procedures for proposed new reactors to make sure that management and personnel keep radiation exposures as low as is reasonably achievable through proper training, behavior and decisionmaking.

Our work always focuses on ensuring the possible health risks and environmental hazards associated with new reactors are managed before the reactors are approved and built.

Sara Bernal
Health Physicist

TVA May Be Interested in Building Small Modular Reactors

The NRC regulates three operating nuclear power plants owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA): Browns Ferry, near Athens, Ala.; Sequoyah, in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and Watts Bar, near Spring City, Tenn. In a recent letter to the NRC, TVA — the nation’s largest public power company — indicated it may want to build small modular reactor modules at its Clinch River Site in Roane County, Tenn. This would be the first application received by the NRC for a small modular reactor.

Small modular reactors differ from the 104 nuclear power plants currently licensed by the NRC in that they have a lower electrical output, are manufactured elsewhere and brought to a site instead of being constructed on site. The small modular reactor design that TVA is considering would be an integral pressurized-water reactor designed by the Babcock & Wilcox Company called mPowerTM. The mPower reactor has an electrical output of 125 megawatts as opposed to approximately 1000 megawatts for the currently operating reactors. The lower electrical output of these small modular reactors make them a better fit for some applications such as the Clinch River Site.

One of the primary customers for the electricity generated by these reactors will be the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which is adjacent to the Clinch River Site. They have a need for green power that is significantly less than 1000 megawatts.

TVA has informed the NRC that they may eventually build up to six reactors on this site. The modular nature of the designs allows a utility to easily add additional reactors to a site should electricity demand increase. In addition, since the reactors will be manufactured in a factory, the vendors claim that the cost and quality of construction will be better than other reactor designs. They also claim that key design features of the integral pressurized water reactor design make them potentially safer than currently operating reactors.

TVA proposes using the NRC’s “two-step licensing process” for an initial group of module reactors, and the combined licensing process for future modular reactors at the Clinch River site. For more information on new reactors and the processes, please click on the agency’s public web site at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors.html.

TVA said it plans to submit its application to the NRC in 2012. We expect our review for the construction permit to take about 2 ½ years. The NRC expects to continue discussions with TVA to identify and resolve potential licensing issues within the coming months.

In addition, the NRC will continue meeting with B&W to review the technical adequacy of the mPower design. If the NRC determines that TVA has provided sufficient information, it will issue a construction permit that would allow TVA to begin construction of the first reactor at the Clinch River site. The NRC would not allow TVA to operate the reactor until a determination is made that it has been constructed properly and meet all of the appropriate safety, security, and environmental requirements.

Since the mPower design is a new one, TVA and B&W must work together to demonstrate to the NRC that all of the new features of the design meet our requirements. For more information on this design, go here: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/advanced/mpower.html.

Stewart Magruder
Advanced Reactors Branch Chief

Regulating Domestically, Thinking Globally

The NRC’s Office of New Reactors is mostly focused on nuclear power in the U.S. But we also have a role to play in the global nuclear regulatory community. For example, we have regular meetings with the nuclear regulators of other countries, where we exchange information on “best practices,” challenges ahead and ways to communicate more effectively. We also participate in conferences around the world where we inform the public and our peers of our activities, and gain valuable insights into the best practices of regulators around the world.

And we support activities that allow us to cooperate with our peer regulators and provide assistance to new regulators organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the United Nations, headquartered in Vienna, and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), a part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris.

Meanwhile, we are participating in an important international initiative called the Multinational Design Evaluation Program. The program’s goal is to share information that will strengthen our reactor design reviews. To that end, NRC staffers are working with their contemporaries in other countries on reviewing AREVA’s Evolutionary Power Reactor and Westinghouse’s Advanced Passive 1000 (AP1000) Reactor. These reactor designs are slated to be used by U.S. companies interested in building new reactors.

By sharing this information, the NRC is collaborates directly with regulatory authorities in Canada, China, France, Korea, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, among others. We also are a significant partner in the Working Group on the Regulation of New Reactors, a relatively new group formed by the Committee on Nuclear Regulatory Activities (part of NEA) to encourage sharing information on licensing new reactors and overseeing their construction.

The bottom line is that NRO is key to keeping important information about nuclear power plants flowing around the world. This sharing of information and experience benefits all the countries that rely on nuclear power for their electricity needs.

Bob Jasinski
Senior Communications Specialist

New Reactor Program Annual Review Unveiled

Did you know that by the end of 2010, the NRC had received 18 combined operating license applications to build and operate 28 new reactors? Or that the NRC has issued design certifications for four reactor designs that can be referenced in an application for a nuclear power plant – three from Westinghouse and one from General Electric-Hitachi?

And did you know that NRC inspectors began overseeing construction activities at Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear power plant in 2010 or that the NRC conducts oversight of manufacturers and suppliers of safety-related components to ensure they comply with quality assurance and defect reporting requirements?

The answers to these questions and much more can be found in the first-ever annual review for the NRC’s Office of New Reactors (NRO). The review allows you to keep up with what the agency’s doing with regard to new reactors.

Available in print form and online on the agency’s public web site at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/brochures/br0476, the annual review is an easy-to-read and informative 40-page publication.

The review includes sections on the office’s three main areas of focus, new reactor licensing, construction oversight and the agency’s Advanced Reactor Program. In addition, the review features an “International Cooperation” section, as well as an “Overview” summary and “A Look Ahead” write-up. It concludes with “At a Glance,” an organizational summary of divisions within the office, their branches and responsibilities.

The publication is complete with photos of NRO employees at work, illustrations of state-of-the-art technology, charts and other graphics. Requests for print copies of the review can be sent to: opa.resource@nrc.gov .

Bob Jasinski
Senior New Reactors Communications Specialist

When Foreign Countries Want to Buy into U.S. Nuclear Power Plants – What Then?

The United States has historically struggled to balance its commitment to economic openness and foreign investment with national security concerns. For example, U.S. national policy makers have worked to make sure sensitive military and defense technology and production remain with American companies.

After 9/11, concerns grew that foreign ownership of U.S. infrastructure could increase our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. One example is the heated debate triggered by the 2006 purchase of a company that ran U.S. ports by the United Arab Emirates-owned company Dubai Ports World. (Dubai Ports eventually sold its interests to a U.S. company.) More recently, globalization of the nuclear industry and the weak U.S. economy have attracted significant levels of foreign investment in the U.S. nuclear industry.

The Atomic Energy Act prohibits the NRC from issuing a license to any entity that the Commission believes is “owned, controlled or dominated by an alien, a foreign corporation or foreign government.” Broadly speaking, the foreign ownership prohibition protects the “common defense and security” of the United States, even though this may prevent some nations from participating in U.S. nuclear joint ventures.

However, the NRC can permit foreign investment in nuclear power reactors if certain conditions are met. What are these conditions?

The licensee must submit a plan that describes how it will mitigate foreign control issues. For example, the licensee could exclude foreign board directors from nuclear safety and security decisions or establish “Nuclear Advisory Committees” made up of U.S. citizens to oversee safety and security practices.

For any proposed foreign joint venture, the NRC staff reviews many aspects of the proposed corporate structures of the owners, including parent companies and subsidiaries, financial arrangements, operating agreements, voting requirements, and decision-making authorities. The staff can impose license conditions specific to the situation.

Foreign investment will continue to play a critical part in the U.S. nuclear industry. Through effective staff review and implementation of effective mitigation measures, the NRC can continue to protect the common defense and security regardless of ownership.

Anneliese Simmons
Nuclear Reactor Financial Analyst

Meeting the Challenge of Regulating New Reactors

As many of you are aware, the much-anticipated and often-written about global surge in interest in nuclear power is underway. Our agency is in the midst of this surge to safely meet the substantial challenge that many industry experts expect to continue in 2011 and well beyond.

In fact, we are actively reviewing 12 combined license applications that, if approved, could result in the construction and operation of up to 20 new reactors. A map of projected locations for new reactors can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/col/new-reactor-map.html .

To meet this growing interest in commercial nuclear power, in 2006 the agency created the Office of New Reactors, or in agency-speak, ”NRO.” Located at NRC headquarters, near Washington, D.C., we work closely with a new agency inspection organization in our Region II Office in Atlanta, GA. This structure ensures that we are fully equipped and ready to address the renewed interest in nuclear energy.

Our mission is to serve the public by ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs. However, as federal regulators, it is important to point out that we are not advocates for or against commercial nuclear power.

Our responsibilities in this new office are divided into three subprograms or areas of focus – New Reactor Licensing, Construction Oversight and Advanced Reactors.

In addition, we are active in the international area, including significant participation in the Multinational Design Evaluation Program. This program develops innovative ways to leverage the resources and knowledge of international regulatory authorities to review new reactor power plant designs.

Please look for more detail on each of these areas in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any questions about new reactors, please let us know in the comments to this post.

Bob Jasinski
Senior New Reactors Communications Specialist