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Tag Archives: ACRS

Five Questions With: Andrea Veil

Andrea Veil is the Executive Director for the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards

  1. How would you briefly describe your role at the NRC?

5 questions_9with boxI serve as the liaison between the ACRS and the NRC staff at all levels and the NRC Commissioners. I also manage the technical and administrative staff who support the ACRS as it meets its obligation to provide the Commission with independent and timely technical advice. By the way, the ACRS full committee just held its 638th meeting last week.

  1. What is your foremost responsibility at work?

Ensuring that the ACRS members have everything that they need to provide effective and timely technical advice to the NRC Commission. That means researching issues, getting answers to questions, pulling together legal and regulatory documents, talking to stakeholders, reviewing reports and all other kinds of support actions. The independence of ACRS is truly unique among government agencies. The ACRS provides independent advice to the Commission on issues related to nuclear reactors safety and security, and nuclear waste and materials, so facilitating the technical reviews and meetings required to fulfill the ACRS mission is of utmost importance.

  1. What is your most significant challenge in the workplace?

andreaThe challenge to continue adapt to agency-wide changes that may affect the ACRS workload and independent function.

  1. What do you consider one of your most notable accomplishments at the NRC?

I would say one of my biggest job successes is becoming the first female Executive Director of the ACRS since its beginning in 1954.

  1. What is one quality of the NRC that more people should know?

The NRC is a regulatory authority and does not have promotion of nuclear energy as part of its mission. Our stance is if there is to be nuclear power in this country, it will be done safely. We don’t advocate for or against nuclear power, nor do we have any say in the energy generation mix in this country (that’s Department of Energy). In addition, over regulation by the NRC is sometimes cited as the reason for the permanent closure of a plant. The decision by a utility to permanently close a plant is a business/economic decision by that licensee.

Five Questions is an occasional series in which we pose the same questions to different NRC staff members.

Throwback Thursday: The ACRS ’80s Style

tbtacrs1989The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards is a statutory body of scientists, engineers and other experts in fields related to nuclear safety. The Committee conducts independent reviews of nuclear power plant applications and other matters referred to it by the NRC. It has a long history – its responsibilities were described in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended.

This group shot, taken from the 1989 Annual Report to Congress, shows the ACRS members as of September that year. The photo is timely as the committee held its 637th meeting last Thursday.

The Chairman is seated in the middle. TBT Quiz: What was the Chairman’s name and to what position would he be appointed just two months later? Extra points if you can name the vice chairman, seen here seated second from the left.

Penn State University’s Breazeale Reactor Celebrates 60 Years

Thomas Wellock
Historian

pennstateLast month, Pennsylvania State University’s Breazeale Research Reactor celebrated its 60th anniversary as the nation’s oldest licensed reactor. The Breazeale reactor has been invaluable in research, training, and in establishing Penn State’s well-regarded nuclear engineering program. As part of the Atoms for Peace program, it trained foreign engineers as reactor operators and tested fuel integrity for reactors exported to other nations.

It is a historic marker of early reactor development.

In the early 1950s, universities raced to build research reactors. North Carolina State College jumped ahead when it contracted with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to build a reactor that started up in 1953. By 1955, 14 schools had applied to the AEC for the license required of new reactors under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

Penn State had two important assets in this race: money and William Breazeale. Penn State’s board of trustees committed ample funds for construction and operation. To win AEC approval, Penn State followed NC State’s successful strategy of raiding the AEC for faculty talent and a reactor design.

An electrical engineer by training, Breazeale had worked for several years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory supporting the design of thorium and uranium-fueled reactors. His signal accomplishment was in leading the design team for the Bulk Shielding Reactor, the prototype of the “swimming pool” research reactors built at Penn State and facilities around the world. Penn State hired Breazeale to serve as its first-ever professor of nuclear engineering.

The swimming pool reactor was safe, inexpensive, and startlingly simple. Engineers just placed the reactor fuel at the bottom of a tank 30 feet deep so that the water served as a source of cooling and radiation shielding. Faculty and students could stand on a platform directly over the reactor to operate and view it.

Nevertheless, the AEC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) made the path to licensing approval so challenging that a frustrated Breazeale once suggested the Committee did not “view the [reactor] hazard problem in its proper perspective.” It wasn’t the last time that ACRS safety concerns were challenged by applicants and vendors.

Earlier this month, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) visited Penn State and toured the reactor. He's standing here with Kenan Unlu, Ph.D., Professor of Nuclear Engineering.

Earlier this month, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) visited Penn State and toured the reactor. He’s standing here with Kenan Unlu, Ph.D., Professor of Nuclear Engineering.

The ACRS fretted over the potential for theft of the fuel, power excursions, and the proximity of the reactor to college housing. The reactor’s 3.6 kilograms of highly enriched fuel posed a safeguards risk, and the Committee demanded a combination of security guards and radiation monitors to protect it. Penn State had to carry out fuel test program and moved the reactor further away than planned from faculty housing. The ACRS also required an emergency plan for notifying local authorities, public evacuation, and cleanup.  Ironing out these issues delayed licensing. When President Dwight Eisenhower gave the college’s commencement address in June 1955, he could only look down into an empty tank with no fuel.

But persistence led to success. On the morning of August 15, Breazeale and doctoral student Robert Cochran started the reactor for the first time. Both veteran Oak-Ridge operators, their approach to criticality was careful but confident enough that they paused so that Cochran could run to the registrar’s office. At 11:30 a.m., the reactor went critical. Then Breazeale and Cochran shut down the reactor and stored the fuel in a vault for two weeks. It was, after all, summer vacation.

The Breazeale reactor reminds us how much reactor safety has changed while staying the same. Its 1955 license was just two pages of conditions. When Penn State renewed it in 2009, the license had grown to 60 pages. Safety regulation is more complex today, but the inherent safety of Breazeale’s reactor remains as important today as it was in 1955.

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