Making Recent Safety Enhancements Part of the NRC Routine

Stephen G. Burns
Chairman

The NRC has made great strides to enhance U.S. nuclear power plants’ already robust safety measures in the five years since the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident. We took swift action after the accident in 2011, ordering a variety of upgrades to plant safety. Now we’re to the point of incorporating this work into our ongoing inspection and oversight processes.

NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) stands with Jim Meister, Vice President for Operations Support, Exelon Generation, in front of portable equipment at the Braidwood nuclear plant. The equipment was purchased after Fukushima.
NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) stands with Jim Meister, Exelon’s Vice President for Operations Support, near new portable equipment at the Braidwood nuclear plant.

A key lesson from the accident was that plants must be prepared for events not contemplated when they were designed and constructed. Plants’ strategies to address external events must be flexible enough to deal with variety of circumstances.

Substantial progress has been made towards completing NRC-directed upgrades to address this lesson. Plants are far better prepared for severe events now than they were in 2011.

About half of U.S. commercial reactors have completed integrating portable pumps, generators and other resources and procedures to maintain key safety functions. By the end of the year we expect every U.S. plant to have the physical resources. Almost all the plants will have all their procedures available, and the rest will have most procedures ready to go. The industry also has two national rapid response centers up and running in Phoenix and Memphis with portable equipment that can be dispatched within 24 hours to anywhere in the country if additional help is needed.

More than three quarters of the plants have completed installing equipment to better monitor their spent fuel pools, and we expect every U.S. plant to finish that work by the end of the year. The bulk of the remaining safety-significant work should be done in 2017.

I’ve personally been to nearly a dozen plants since becoming Chairman and have seen first-hand the work that has been done at these sites. The operators of the plants have taken this work very seriously and the amount of equipment purchased and plant modifications made is quite impressive. Equally impressive is the thoroughness reflected in the procedures and training developed to make sure their people are ready and able to spring into action should the worst happen.

The NRC’s requests for U.S. plants to re-examine earthquakes and flooding hazards are also bearing fruit. Every plant has updated its understanding of potential earthquakes at its site. A quarter of the plants have finished their earthquake-related work. The rest are looking at whether their new quake hazard affects risks to a plant’s ability to safely shut down.

While improving flooding hazard information has proven more complex, more than half of the plants have updated their understanding of flooding sources. All the plants will continue examining any risk changes due to revised flooding estimates.

Our next step is to inspect the work that’s been done and to ensure the plants maintain all of that progress. We’re adapting our inspections and other processes to cover these enhancements. We’ve given our Resident Inspectors the handbook for the first of these inspections, in this case looking at the newly integrated portable equipment and resources. The first of those checks was done a few days ago. We’re also updating our assessment process for inspection findings to cover the post-Fukushima upgrades.

Moving examination of these upgrades into our everyday oversight ensures we – and the plants – are vigilant in maintaining this important progress. Our onsite inspectors will keep a constant eye on these upgrades, with help as needed from our regional and headquarters staff.

The NRC has met the challenges raised by the Fukushima accident promptly while maintaining day-to-day safe plant operations. We’ll work hard every day to make certain plants also stay focused on maintaining the progress we’ve made.

Marking Three Years of Post-Fukushima Progress

Allison M. Macfarlane
Chairman
 

The approach to the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex winds through empty villages where weeds grow in silent communities, storefronts are shattered and advertising signs entice a population that may be years in returning.

A year ago I visited the site of the devastating March 11, 2011, accident triggered by a massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 46-foot tsunami.

Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials stand in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of TEPCO
Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials stand in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of TEPCO

The site where four of six reactors were inundated bears testament not only to the power of the natural forces but also to the huge hydrogen explosions that rocked three of the reactors. Rusting trucks lay about the property. And thousands of workers in protective gear and full-face respirators scramble over the shattered industrial complex.

It is hard to visit the site without coming away impressed with the forces at work and a recognition this cannot be allowed to happen again anywhere. In the United States, we must redouble our efforts to prevent such an accident here, whether caused by an earthquake, another natural disaster or a man-made event.

Not long after the accident at Fukushima, the independent U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission I chair embarked on a concerted effort to learn and apply lessons from Fukushima. The Commission set out a three-tiered program of safety enhancements.

Many of the recommendations — while complex — are grounded in simple concepts. Among them are ensuring all U.S. plants take the latest seismic and flooding information into account; ensuring that the 31 U.S. early design boiling water reactors similar to those at Fukushima have the capacity to vent pressure and perhaps even filter vented air; ensuring there is sufficient additional equipment at the ready to deal with a loss of power at a reactor site and provide backup cooling; and getting additional sensors and cooling capacity for spent fuel pools.

The NRC staff and the nuclear industry have made good progress in responding to the recommendations to date.

We have approved plans for nuclear power plants to buy additional equipment and distribute it around their sites so that they will be able to respond even if a severe event disables permanently installed equipment. They are in the process of installing spent fuel pool instrumentation, and this spring and fall they will begin major work to accommodate hardened venting systems and additional wiring and piping to connect to newly installed cooling equipment.

JLD vertical CEvery U.S. plant is in the process of completing an in-depth reanalysis of their sites’ potential for floods and earthquakes. We’ve checked the first flooding analyses and expect more in soon. We also expect the earthquake analyses from the vast majority of U.S. plants by the end of March. We’ll ensure the plants compare their sites’ new analyses to their existing designs to see what enhancements might be needed.

The NRC has conducted our work following Fukushima in a spirit of openness and transparency, and we’ve benefitted greatly from public feedback. Over the past three years we’ve addressed Fukushima-related topics in more than 150 public meetings. These meetings let the public see and participate in discussions on proposed NRC actions and the industry’s responses.

Finally, let me address the occasional Internet-based concerns we’ve seen about Fukushima contamination in the Pacific Ocean. Contamination near Japan’s coast is well below U.S. and international drinking water limits. And the Pacific’s vast volume has greatly dispersed any contamination before it can reach our west coast. Here the concentrations are projected to be hundreds or a thousand or more times below already strict U.S. and international limits that protect public health and the environment. Scientists have not seen any Fukushima contamination that raises a concern about the U.S. food supply, water supply, or public health.

The images of Fukushima are indelibly impressed on my mind. Even now I’m still struck by the experience of seeing the empty nearby villages, each holding memories of the 160,000 people displaced by the accident. Fukushima put nuclear safety in the spotlight. As we continue our work to address lessons learned, the NRC is committed to keeping it there