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OIG Audit Looks at Security for Decommissioning Reactors

Brett M. Baker
Assistant Inspector General for Audits

An Office of the Inspector General audit of the NRC’s oversight of security at decommissioning reactors is now available here. The audit set out to determine whether NRC’s oversight of security at decommissioning reactors provides for adequate protection of radioactive structures, systems and components.

oigThe NRC regulates the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, a process during which a plant is removed from service and the residual radioactivity is reduced to a level that permits release of the property and termination of its license. The NRC has rules governing power plant decommissioning that protect workers and the public during the process, and regulations for the management of worker fatigue.

The OIG found that the agency’s oversight of security at decommissioning reactors provides for adequate protection of radioactive structures, systems, and components. However, opportunities exist for program improvement.

The audit found that NRC regulations lack clarity on which elements of fitness-for-duty decommissioning licensees must implement. In addition, the NRC lacks regulatory requirements for a fatigue management program for decommissioning licensees.

The NRC is taking steps to address the issues. Presently, there are ongoing rulemaking efforts in the area of decommissioning. Additionally, the NRC recently finalized a report to document lessons learned associated with permanent power reactor shutdowns that occurred from 2013 – 2016.

The OIG audit report makes recommendations to clarify which fitness-for-duty elements licensees must implement to meet the requirements of the insider mitigation program; and to establish requirements for a fatigue management program.

NRC management stated their general agreement with the audit findings and recommendations.

NRC’s Requirements Following Entergy’s Announcement Palisades Will Cease Operation

Viktoria Mitlyng
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region III

Entergy announced last week it would permanently shut down its Palisades Nuclear Plant on October 1, 2018. The facility, located in Covert, Mich., has been in operation since 1971 and is licensed to operate until 2031.

palisades_smallThe NRC was not involved in the decision, which the company said was based on business and financial factors. Our single focus as an independent regulator is on the safety of nuclear plants, the public and the environment.

However, once any announcement about closure is made, the NRC becomes engaged and the company has to meet our requirements for permanently shutting down an operating reactor.

The first step in this process requires Entergy to make a written Certification of Permanent Cessation of Operations to the NRC within 30 days from announcing its decision to permanently take the plant off line.

Should Entergy decide to continue operating the plant beyond the date stated in the certification, it would have to notify the NRC in writing.

As long as the plant is operating, we will continue to independently verify Palisades is meeting NRC’s stringent requirements. These requirements will remain in place until all fuel is removed from the reactor and the NRC has the company’s certifications of permanent cessation of operation and permanent fuel removal. At that point in the process, Entergy is no longer authorized to put new fuel into the reactor or resume plant operation.

The plant then enters the NRC’s well-established decommissioning process  geared towards ensuring the continued safe use of nuclear material, and the safety of nuclear workers and the public. Decommissioning must be completed within 60 years of the plant ceasing operations.

Nuclear plant operators are required to plan for the ultimate decommissioning of the plant before it begins operations by establishing and maintaining a dedicated decommissioning fund. These funds – created to ensure there will be sufficient money to pay for a plant’s radiological decommissioning — cannot be used for any other purpose unless the NRC grants an exemption.

Operating plants must maintain the required levels established by the NRC  and certify that there is reasonable assurance there will be adequate decommissioning funds, at least every two years while the plant is operating and more frequently after it ceases operations. The NRC reviewed the decommissioning funding status report  for Palisades in 2015 and found that it met our requirements.

An Era Ends at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Shortly before 1 p.m. Monday, operators in the control room of the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant pushed a red button, initiating an automatic shutdown of the reactor. So ended commercial operations for the nation’s smallest nuclear power plant, located along the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of Omaha, Neb.

fcsWhen it happened, just as it had done when the plant began operations 43 years earlier, the NRC had staff onsite to ensure events unfolded as planned, systems functioned as designed and public health and safety were protected.

“The shutdown was done in a very professional manner,” said Geoff Miller, a branch chief in the NRC’s Division of Reactor Projects, who oversees the plant from the NRC’s Region IV office in Arlington, Texas. By his side was Lindsay Brandt, a reactor inspector from the Region IV office, who also monitored the shutdown.

Max Schneider, the Senior Resident Inspector at Fort Calhoun, was in the plant monitoring the shutdown and checking to ensure that all plant systems responded as designed. “Everything went very well. There were no issues with plant equipment,” said Schneider, who reported to the site in June 2014 after serving as a Resident Inspector at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts.

“I’ve watched lot of plant shutdowns prior to maintenance and refueling outages,” Miller said.  “Usually there is a lot of tension and excitement in the air in anticipation of events to follow but there was not a lot of that Monday. Things were subdued.”

The Omaha Public Power District’s Board of Directors voted several months ago to shut down Fort Calhoun for commercial reasons.

Brandt will remain at the plant for another three or four weeks and then return to the NRC’s Region IV, where she will resume other duties. Schneider will remain onsite for six months to a year to monitor post shutdown activities and ensure a safe transition from commercial operations to decommissioning mode.

Inspectors from the NRC’s Region IV office will conduct periodic inspections to ensure that spent fuel is being stored safely and securely in the plant’s water-filled spent fuel pool and in dry cask canisters while it remains onsite. The NRC will also conduct periodic inspections of decommissioning activities.

Within 30 days, Omaha Public Power District officials are expected to submit a letter to the NRC certifying the permanent cessation of commercial operations and stating that all of the radioactive fuel has been permanently removed from the reactor vessel. When this happens, OPPD will have surrendered its authority to operate the reactor or reload fuel in it. They have two years in which to file a report with the NRC, describing their plans for decommissioning the plant.

NRC Finishes Review of Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Planning Report

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

More of a marathon than a sprint, the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant can in some cases take decades. But central to the successful completion of that process is careful planning and vigilant oversight.

vyIn December of 2014, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant embarked on that phase of its life after being permanently shut down. As required by the NRC, Entergy, the plant’s owner, submitted a Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, or PSDAR, on Dec. 19, 2014.

What exactly is a PSDAR? It is a report designed to provide the NRC and public with a general overview of the company’s proposed decommissioning activities. The report includes estimated costs for decommissioning and an affirmation that the decommissioning can be completed consistent with the site’s environmental statement.

Since the PSDAR only provides information and is not a federal action, it does not require NRC approval. However, the agency does review such submittals to confirm they meet regulatory requirements.

Besides performing an evaluation of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the decommissioning plans, the NRC staff also reviewed public comments regarding the report. Along those lines, the agency held a public meeting on Feb. 19, 2015, in Brattleboro, Vt., for the purpose of receiving comments. Those remarks and others submitted separately in writing were all considered as the report was being prepared.

The NRC staff has now completed its review of the report and has determined the planned decommissioning activities, schedules and other information described in it are consistent with the agency’s requirements in this area. A copy of the NRC’s letter to Entergy regarding the PSDAR review results will be made available in the agency’s electronic documents system, ADAMS.

Also on the topic of Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning, as of Feb. 1, 2016, the responsibility for Vermont Yankee has been transferred within the NRC from the office responsible for operating reactors to the office responsible for decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Going forward, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards’ Division of Decommissioning, Uranium Recovery and Waste Programs will oversee licensing activities involving Vermont Yankee.

The NRC will continue to perform inspections at Vermont Yankee, with the intention of being on-site anytime a major activity is taking place.

 

A Decommissioning of a Different Sort: NRC Resident Inspector Office at Vermont Yankee Shuts Down

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

VYResidentOfficeClose 7-2015Something happened last week at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that might not merit headline news but is nonetheless worth highlighting: The lights were turned off for the last time in the NRC’s Resident Inspector office at the site.

As is well known by now, Vermont Yankee permanently ceased operations last December, bringing to a halt power production that had begun in November 1972. Since 1978, when the Resident Inspector program was launched, the NRC has had two such inspectors assigned to the site.

Among other things, these inspectors have kept close watch on day-to-day activities, responded to events, performed inspections and reviews and served as a vital conduit of information to the NRC. But commensurate with the reduced safety risk associated with a permanently shutdown reactor, the NRC has ended its daily inspector presence.

The NRC had kept a Resident Inspector at the Vernon, Vt., site to allow us to maintain on-site scrutiny during the early stages of the transition from an operating plant to one entering decommissioning. (Vermont Yankee will be using the SAFSTOR approach, which will involve placing the unit in storage for many years before embarking on major decontamination and dismantlement work.)

Although the Resident Inspector office has closed, NRC’s review activities have not come to a halt. Rather, the agency will continue to perform inspections at the plant on a periodic and targeted basis.

For instance, whenever there is major work taking place, such as the demolition of a nuclear-related building or the removal of spent fuel stored in the plant’s spent fuel pool into dry casks, an NRC inspector will be present. In addition, NRC will conduct inspections at the site at regular intervals to check on the plant’s safety status and any key developments until all spent fuel has been removed from the site and the plant’s NRC license is terminated.

Anyone seeking to contact the NRC regarding Vermont Yankee can continue to do so by calling the agency’s Region I Office via its toll-free phone number at 1-800-432-1156 and asking for the Division of Nuclear Materials Safety or by e-mail at OPA1@NRC.GOV .

Vermont Yankee is not unique with respect to this change involving the Resident Inspectors assigned to the plant. Three other plants that have shut down in recent years have also seen this changeover.

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