A Commissioner from the Atomic Energy Commission (NRC’s predecessor agency) is seen here standing with a model of an inexpensive sub-critical assembly unit showing detailed technical information on its design, fabrication and operating characteristics. The presentation ceremony of the model took place in 1964 at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.
Can anyone name the AEC Commissioner? Hint: he is on the far left. Bonus points if you can name the IAEA Director General next to him.
Photo credit: IAEA
Senior Project Manager
Japan Lessons Learned Division
Ever since the March 2011 nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, regulators around the world have asked “what have we learned?” The Fukushima accident led the nuclear power industry worldwide to reconsider how we approached nuclear safety in the case of extreme natural events. Regulators and the nuclear industry have put a high priority on addressing the accident’s lessons and implementing safety enhancements.
Last year, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a report that took another look at the accident and detailed what was learned. The NRC has reviewed the report to see if it might lead us to additional actions here in the United States.
At this point, we see that either the NRC, the U.S. government, or the nuclear industry are already addressing the IAEA report’s lessons. U.S. actions on these lessons are consistent with the international community’s approach to the issues. A more detailed comparison of the report’s recommendations with relevant U.S. actions is available here.
Reviews of the accident have focused on the effects of earthquakes and floods, as well as positioning plants to deal safely with a complete loss of off-site and back-up power. Nuclear power plants worldwide are addressing these issues with steps that include:
- re-examining external hazards,
- improving electrical systems,
- adding ways to cool the fuel in the reactor core,
- protecting the reactor containment,
- adding ways to cool the spent fuel in storage pools, and
- developing capabilities to quickly provide equipment and assistance from on-site or off-site emergency preparedness facilities.
The NRC and our international counterparts have compared our post-Fukushima approaches before. In 2014, an IAEA team report looked at several of the lessons the NRC has learned from the accident. The report, after examining our efforts at that time, concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively.” The team also said the NRC’s inspections on Fukushima-related issues were “exemplary.”
As the NRC continues reviewing the IAEA 2015 report in detail, we are heartened that our international counterparts are all addressing the same concerns. Our collective actions are enhancing safety worldwide.
More information on the NRC’s response to the Fukushima accident can be found on NRC’s Japan Lessons Learned website. A description of the accident is available here.
Chief, Spent Fuel Licensing Branch
The idea of transporting nuclear materials can make people nervous. It’s easy to imagine worst-case accidents on the highway or involving a train. But stringent safety requirements, as well as coordination among federal agencies, international regulators, and state and local officials, help to ensure these shipments are made safely. This structure provides many layers of safety.
From time to time, the requirements are updated to address new information. The International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation recently updated their requirements. The NRC just amended ours to reflect those updates, as well as to make some changes we felt were needed based on recent experience. You can read the Federal Register notice on the final rule, published June 12.
While the rules are revised periodically, the fact remains that nuclear materials are transported safely all the time. By far the majority of shipments involve small quantities of nuclear materials. Millions of these shipments are made each year and arrive at their destination without incident. Smaller shipments must be made in compliance with DOT regulations for shipping hazardous materials. The greater the potential risk of the contents, the more stringent DOT’s packaging requirements are. The DOT regulations limit how much radioactivity can be transported in each package. That way, no transport accident involving these small shipments would pose a serious health threat.
But what about larger amounts of radioactive materials? What about spent nuclear fuel?
In addition to having to meet DOT requirements, more radioactive cargo such as spent fuel must meet NRC regulations for nuclear materials packaging and transport in 10 CFR Part 71. These regulations include very detailed requirements for shipping under normal conditions, as well as stringent tests to show the packages can withstand severe accidents. These are the regulations we just finished updating.
If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our backgrounder.
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation
It’s always great to hear people use words such as “effective,” “exemplary” and even “inspiration” to describe the job you’re doing. It’s even better when those people are your international peers, talking about such topics as the NRC’s response to the March 2011 Fukushima accident.
Five senior nuclear regulators from Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, along with International Atomic Energy Agency staff, just spent a week examining our work. This Integrated Regulatory Review Service team is part of an IAEA program that independently reviews a country’s nuclear regulator. We greatly appreciate their putting so much time and effort into the visit. I oversaw the agency’s responses to the team, and I’m proud of how our staff earned such high marks.
The IRRS report talks a lot about our Fukushima work. It also discusses our response to a 2010 IRRS visit that looked in detail at how the NRC regulates nuclear power plants. The team reviewed our immediate response to the accident. They then looked at our ongoing effort to enhance U.S. reactor safety based on what the accident taught us. They concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively … in the interests of the public health and safety in both the U.S. and Japan.”
The team said our Near-Term Task Force report was “a source of inspiration for many regulatory bodies worldwide.” They also looked at how we’ve inspected U.S. reactors on Fukushima-related issues. They called that work “exemplary.” We’re honored our approach to learning from Fukushima and acting on that knowledge is so well-respected. We also appreciate their noting there’s still more to do in working all the Fukushima-related changes into our regulations.
We’re pleased that our peers felt the NRC’s efforts have properly answered almost every 2010 recommendation or suggestion about how we oversee nuclear power. They also noted how well we’ve been learning from relevant events in non-nuclear industries. They also suggested we develop a more orderly process for a U.S. reactor to move from operation to decommissioning. We can always get better as an agency, so we’re going to see how best we can work on that suggestion.
The NRC understands how valuable peer review is, so we’ll continue to support IRRS missions worldwide. We’ll also work with the IAEA to see how additional visits to the U.S. might fit into our future schedule.