U.S. NRC Blog

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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.

Baffle Bolts: An Update

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

There have been some new developments since our last blog post, on June 1, regarding degraded reactor vessel bolts identified at a pair of nuclear power plants in the Northeast. Most notably, both the Indian Point 2 plant, in New York, and the Salem 1 plant, in New Jersey, returned to service over the summer.

BaffleBoltsGraphic1_cleanbigfontIndian Point 2 came back online in late June after 278 of the plant’s 832 baffle-former bolts were replaced. As for Salem 1, it was restarted on July 30th after changing out 189 of its 832 baffle-former bolts.

In both cases, prior to the restarts, the NRC conducted independent evaluations of analyses done for the plants’ respective owners by the reactor vendors looking at how many new, more robust bolts had to be installed to maintain safety margins and ensure the structural integrity of the baffle-former plates. The agency also had specialist inspectors at the plants for first-hand observations and information-gathering on bolt-removal and -replacement activities.

Based on those reviews, the NRC concluded that the reactors were safe to operate. The bolts will be subject to further inspections at the reactors’ next refueling outages, which typically occur about once every 18 to 24 months.

Nevertheless, the NRC identified a “green” (very low safety significance) non-cited violation at Indian Point 3 related to the bolts issue in an inspection report issued on Aug. 30th. A similar non-cited violation has also been identified at the Salem nuclear power plant, as documented in an NRC inspection report issued on Sept. 22.

In both cases, the plant owners had not completed a necessary process to document its conclusion, following identification of degraded bolts on one unit, that the second unit was safe to continue to operate. After the NRC raised concerns regarding the deficiencies, the companies undertook corrective actions, including completing and documenting the evaluations.

Looking ahead, there is still more work to be done. Bolts from both reactors have been or will be sent to labs for metallurgical analysis. Also, the NRC will continue to engage the nuclear industry on its plans for addressing the issue

An NRC web page has been updated to reflect the latest available information on this topic, including the NRC slides from a related July meeting and a summary of the session.

Radium Part II: Trying to Close Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Until 1945, radium was the best known radioactive material. It was widely found in consumer and medical products. And, as we saw in Part I of this series, it became notorious for fatally sickening radium watch-dial painters in the 1920s. With few exceptions, oversight of public and workplace safety for radium was mostly a state responsibility, and the federal government’s role was limited to such issues as preventing false advertising and regulating mail shipments.

USRadiumGirls-Argonne1ca1922-23-150dpiAt that time, radioisotopes came from just two limited sources. They were painstakingly isolated from natural ores, as was radium, or created in small batches in particle accelerators. These accelerators fire beams of electrons, protons and other particles at elements to create radioactive isotopes. Today the products of these two processes are called NARM—short for Naturally-Occurring and Accelerator-Produced Radioactive Material.

Scientists working on fission and the Manhattan Project discovered new radioactive isotopes with interesting properties. They soon became widely available to scientists, who found many uses for these products, from medical to basic research. They were under federal control and soon eclipsed the small amounts of radium and other NARM that existed before the war. Cold-War security concerns demanded federal control of nuclear technology and this new radioactive material.

Still, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act avoided intruding on state authority over NARM. It focused the Atomic Energy Commission’s oversight on fissionable material such as uranium and thorium and reactor-produced isotopes. The AEC controlled the vast majority of radioactive material.

This division of power didn’t disturb existing state authority but made little technical sense. An isotope produced in a reactor would be identical to one found in nature or produced in an accelerator.  Moreover, state oversight was uneven.

Radium_Periodic Element TableRadium had lost its luster and fallen into disuse. Safer reactor-produced isotopes and sources with shorter half-lives mostly replaced radium for medical uses. Radium consumer products disappeared from stores by the 1970s. But products made with radium during its heyday (see Part I) retain their hazard for a long time.

So, from time to time, reports would emerge of products found in someone’s attic or office, or contamination found in a building. This prompted the Public Health Service to launch a program to collect and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Beginning in the late 1960s, state radiation control officers called for legislation to give the AEC and later the NRC the power to regulate radium and other NARM. In 1985 the NRC asked to be given authority over NARM waste disposal, but Congress took no action. The status quo remained, in part due to difficulties Congress had deciding on the federal agency best suited to regulate radium and oversee cleanup.

Little changed until the 1990s when terrorism provided a new dimension of concern. Experts worried that untracked or stolen radioactive sources, including radium, could be used in “dirty bombs.” Between 1998 and 2003, as part of the U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NRC worked with member nations on a code of conduct for radioactive sources. To limit the potential for “malicious acts,” the code appealed to each country to develop a national system of regulation for a list of radioactive sources — radium among them.

In the wake of 9/11, support for the IAEA code gained momentum. Congress included a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act giving NRC oversight of radium and other sources of NARM. A consensus for federal regulation emerged only when national security issues joined long-standing health concerns.

Radium Part I: Opening Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered Radium-226 in 1898, it opened up the atom’s secrets and offered hope that its mysterious radioactive rays were a miracle cure. Sobering reality replaced euphoria as radium factory workers began to die.

Radium taught the world of radiation’s dangers, yet it was not until 2005 that Congress put all aspects of radium safety oversight under the federal government. Until that time, it was primarily regulated — to varying degrees — by the states. This three-part blog series traces radium’s long unique history where states took the lead in regulating it and compensating victims.

Soon after the Curies’ discovery, radium became a consumer and medical sensation. Its radiation reduced tumor growth, and researchers found somewhat elevated levels of radiation at some medicinal spas, such as Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and Hot Springs, Ark. Conclusion? Radiation was a life saver. One physician claimed that radium’s “radiation prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Manufacturers hawked quack products they claimed were laced with radium as a miracle cure and status symbol: elixirs, kitchenware, clothes, pillows, razor blades, and cigarette holders, even condoms. Radium’s luminescent properties also made possible glow-in-the-dark paint for watch dials.

In 1925, the New York Times reported one of the earliest instances of radiation-induced cancer. Its victims were young women—watch-dial painters in New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois. The intricate work required them to “lip point” their brushes by licking them. Infections and cancers of the jaw followed from the ingested radium. The isotope’s bone-seeking properties and long half-life made it particularly dangerous. (The time required for the radioactivity to decrease by one-half is referred to as the half-life. The half-life of Ra-226 is about 1,600 years.)

The tragic story of the “radium girls” transformed radiation’s image from panacea to poison. Public discussion turned to compensating victims and limiting radium exposures—duties that usually fell to state courts and agencies. In New Jersey, reformers won their fight for a law allowing compensation for “radium necrosis.”

State labor and health agencies were able to halt lip pointing, but their power over industry was sometimes limited. For example, the New Jersey Labor Department issued to U.S. Radium Corporation an order to tighten safety for its dial painters — “comply or close.” It closed and moved elsewhere.

RadiumAd2_0_Altantic MagFederal agencies mostly deferred to state authority over radium. They issued studies, organized conferences, and developed voluntary safe work practices. The Federal Trade Commission had some influence in shutting down falsely advertised products, such as the “fountain of youth” tonic Radithor, but safety assurance was a state prerogative.

With World War II, change came as nuclear reactors of the U.S. wartime atomic program flooded the world with new isotopes, reducing to near insignificance radium’s commercial and medical applications. The Curies’ Nobel-Prize discovery was about to become an afterthought.

Part II will be posted on Wednesday.

Election Year, the Hatch Act and NRC Employees

Eric Michel

flagLike most Americans, the employees of the NRC are watching the 2016 elections and considering who to vote for in November. But unlike most Americans, there are a number of political activities which NRC employees – as part of the federal government – cannot do.

The prohibitions are contained in the Hatch Act, a law first passed in 1939. The act restricts executive branch employees in their actions related to partisan elections – and not just at work. The intent behind the restrictions is to maintain a politically neutral federal workforce, free from partisan influence or coercion.

As outlined in the NRC’s Management Directive 7.10, NRC employees cannot engage in political activity while on duty or while inside a federal building. They can’t wear a partisan political button, display a campaign sign in their office or use their government computer to send an email advocating for or against a partisan political candidate or political party.

Even while off duty, NRC employees cannot solicit or receive funds on behalf of a partisan candidate or political party. You also won’t find NRC employees on any ballot for a partisan election – that’s prohibited, too.

Activities most NRC employees are allowed to do on their own time includes:

  • Register and vote
  • Assist in voter registration drives
  • Contribute money to political organizations
  • Distribute campaign literature
  • Attend political rallies and fundraisers
  • Volunteer for a campaign

They can also run for office in a nonpartisan campaign, such as for a seat on a school board.

Career Senior Executive Service employees are under a few additional restrictions. Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees, such as the NRC Chairman and Commissioners, have their own specific rules.

Penalties can range from being reprimanded to being fired to being fined up to $1,000.

More information about what NRC and other federal government workers can and cannot do related to elections can be found here.


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