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REFRESH: On the Wild Side at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Update: At nuclear power plants in the southwest, snakes, scorpions and black widow spiders are not an unusual sight. Resident Inspectors have to be especially careful during their walkthroughs in those plants not to poke into areas between pipes or bundles of electrical cables where venomous critters may be nesting.  But the most exotic wildlife may be the denizens at the South Texas Project nuclear plant in Bay City, where alligators abound. “We usually have about 75 alligators roaming around on site here at any given time,” said Shelia Davis, a corporate communications specialist for the South Texas Project. “If they stray into areas where they shouldn’t be we have people who are specially trained and can move them safely to our 7,000 acre reservoir.” Victor Dricks

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

refresh leafExamples abound of the ways in which nature abhors a vacuum. Raptors will set up shop on a skyscraper ledge, just as they will on a cliff, if it suits their needs. Coyotes have been increasingly spotted in urban settings, even roaming about the streets of Manhattan. Last year, surveillance cameras captured images of a mountain lion strolling the Hollywood Hills after dark.

Nuclear power plants are also home to a variety of wildlife. Despite the industrial nature of these facilities, they are usually situated on large tracts of land encompassing hundreds of acres. They are also adjacent to bodies of water in order to tap into that H20 for cooling purposes.

All of that property and access to water can entice a variety of animals and birds to take up residence on the sites. And they do just that.

Information supporting this can be found in the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports for U.S. nuclear power plants that have ceased operations.

In the report for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which was submitted to the NRC in December 2014, it’s noted that the main emissions stack includes an attached nesting box for peregrine falcons. The box was installed by the company in 2009 at the request of the Audubon Society.

It’s been a rousing success, as according to the report “there have been two consecutive years of four young born and successfully fledged since 2012.”

An alligator crossing sign at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant.

An alligator crossing sign at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant.

Current decommissioning plans call for the Vernon, Vt., plant to be placed in storage for several decades prior to the initiation of major dismantlement work. However, when the time comes to remove the stack, the plant’s owner will need to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to removing the nesting box since the peregrine falcon is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Peregrine falcons can also be found at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in central Pennsylvania. The PSDAR for TMI-2, where a severe accident occurred in 1979 and which won’t be taken apart until the neighboring TMI-1 permanently shuts down and is also ready for that work, shows peregrine falcons have nested on the TMI reactor building since 2002.

Meanwhile, the plant’s meteorological tower, which collects important weather data, has been home to an osprey nest every year since 2004. Ospreys, also referred to as fish hawks (with a wing span from around 5 feet), like to be around water, so it’s not surprising that TMI, situated on the Susquehanna River, is a place they call home.

A variety of wildlife can be found in the vicinity of the Crystal River 3 nuclear power plant, located on the Gulf Coast of Florida. That plant’s PSDAR, which the NRC received in December 2013, identifies the following threatened or endangered species in the vicinity of the site: Two species of fish — Gulf sturgeon and smalltooth sawfish; five species of sea turtles — green turtle, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and loggerhead; one crocodilian species — American alligator; and one marine mammal — Florida manatee.

But on the site itself, only one state-listed threatened species, the bald eagle, and one state-listed endangered species, the wood stork, are found, according to the report. The PSDAR adds that three other species can “potentially occur” on the property: the gopher tortoise, the eastern indigo snake and the piping plover.

In the case of all of these plants and the others around the country, precautions must be taken to minimize the impacts of operations and decommissioning activities on these species and their habitats, consistent with federal and state laws.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we rerun and/or update previous blog posts. This post first ran in August 2015.

Throwback Thursday – The Lab Van ‘70s Style

TBT-2_blog sizeaugustGerald R. Ford was president. Median household income was $11,800. Gas cost 57 cents a gallon. And NRC inspectors, as part of the Independent Measurements Program, routinely hit the road in a fully equipped van containing a mobile laboratory. Inspectors measured samples of radioactive effluents from nuclear power plants, checking on the accuracy of sampling routinely done by the plants’ own laboratories.

The image directly above on the left shows an NRC inspector placing a liquid radioactive waste sample in a cryogenic detector for analysis of its isotopic composition. In the image directly above on the right, an NRC inspector reviews analytical data. A similar van, but with portable equipment, was used to verify measurements during safeguards inspections of materials facilities. During a safeguards inspection, the equipment was removed from the van and carried inside the facility for use.

Images from the 1975 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Annual Report

When A Plant Changes Hands

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

FitzPatrickTowerViewIn February, Entergy announced plans to permanently shut down the James A. FitzPatrick nuclear power plant on Jan. 27, 2017. However, there are indications – based on recent negotiations between Entergy and Exelon – that the facility may not cease operations after all.

On Aug. 9, Exelon announced it had reached a deal to purchase the Scriba (Oswego County), N.Y., boiling-water reactor from Entergy for $110 million. This agreement occurred after the New York State Public Service Commission approved Zero Emission Credits, or subsidies, which will help upstate N.Y. nuclear plants stay online amid historically low energy prices.

Challenging market conditions had earlier prompted Entergy to announce the plant’s closure. The NRC in 2008 had approved a renewal of FitzPatrick’s initial 40-year operating license, extending it until October 2034.

Before the sale of the plant can be completed, the transaction will undergo reviews by the NRC, as well as other regulatory agencies. NRC staff will evaluate Exelon’s technical and financial capabilities to ensure the plant’s safe operation and to provide reasonable assurance that adequate funding is available to safely decommission the unit after the final shutdown has occurred.

Exelon currently owns and operates 22 reactors at 13 plant sites in the U.S. The company also runs Fort Calhoun under a contract with the Omaha Public Power District.

We will publish on our website and in the Federal Register a notice of having received the license transfer application, dated August. 18, and the opportunity to request a hearing on the proposal. As for the process itself, such reviews generally take from six months to a year. For example, when the FitzPatrick operating license was transferred from the New York Power Authority to Entergy in 2000, the review was completed in about half a year.

As a footnote, Exelon already owns the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant, which is located next-door to FitzPatrick.

Yucca Mountain Documents Now Publicly Available – In a New Online Library

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

The NRC is flipping the switch today on its new LSN Library — making nearly 3.7 million documents related to the adjudicatory hearing on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository available to the public.

yuccatunnelThe library makes the discovery documents by various parties to the hearing public for the first time in five years, and with enhanced search capabilities. The new LSN Library is part of the NRC’s online documents database, known as ADAMS. Although the NRC staff’s discovery documents were already publicly available in ADAMS, those materials have been incorporated into the LSN Library to permit “one-stop” searching for Yucca-related technical information.

Here’s the genesis of the new library: The NRC created the Licensing Support Network, or LSN, back in 2001, years before the Department of Energy submitted its application in 2008 for construction authorization for a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The network was designed to allow easy access to the volumes of discovery documents that would support various aspects of the hearing.

The LSN was a database that required participants to house their documents on their own servers that were accessible for “crawling” by LSN software maintained by the NRC. This software created a document index. Participants and the public could search the index and generate a link to relevant documents on the participants’ home servers.

The LSN worked smoothly through the early stages of the hearing. But then the Department of Energy shut down the Yucca Mountain Project in 2010, and the NRC staff proceeded with an “orderly closure” of its review of DOE’s license application. As part of the orderly closure, an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel’s Construction Authorization Board suspended the hearing in September 2011. The LSN was closed down the previous month, with the CAB directing the parties (other than the NRC staff, whose documents were already public in ADAMS) to provide all their LSN documents to the NRC’s Office of the Secretary.

Then in August 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the NRC to resume its review of DOE’s Yucca Mountain application, using previously appropriated money from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

The Commission directed the staff to finish and publish its Safety Evaluation Report, the main technical review of the application. The staff published the final volumes in January 2015. Then the Commission directed the staff to prepare a supplement to DOE’s Environmental Impact Statement, covering certain groundwater issues that were not fully analyzed in the EIS. The staff issued the final supplement this past May.

Additionally, the Commission directed that if there was enough money remaining, the LSN documents should be made publicly available. As explained in a paper published August 12, that’s the work being completed now with activation of the LSN Library.

The library is significant for three reasons. First, it meets federal records requirements. Second, the library again provides public access to the previously-disclosed discovery materials should the Yucca Mountain adjudicatory hearing resume. Third, should the Yucca Mountain hearing not resume, the library will provide an important source of technical information for any future high-level waste repository licensing proceeding.

And of course, the library helps us meet the NRC’s goal of being an open and transparent regulator.

NRC Keeps an Eye on Gulf Coast Flooding

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Torrential rains have been battering the Gulf Coast since Friday, but have not adversely affected any of the nuclear power plants in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Arkansas.

louisiana map_sealThough skies have now cleared over Baton Rouge, the area has been especially hard hit by flooding. But this has had no significant impact on the River Bend nuclear power plant, about 25 miles northwest of the city, or the designated routes that would be used to evacuate the public in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The Waterford 3 nuclear plant, located in Killona (about 25 miles west of New Orleans), has been similarly unaffected. “We’ve had some heavy rain here over the weekend but there has not been any real impact on the plant,” said NRC Resident Inspector Chris Speer.

Flooding is one of the many natural hazards that nuclear power plants must be prepared for. Every nuclear power plant must demonstrate the ability to withstand extreme flooding and shut down safely if necessary. Most nuclear power plants have emergency diesel generators that can supply backup power for key safety systems if off-site power is lost.

All plants have robust designs with redundancy in key components that are protected from natural events, including flooding. These requirements were in place before the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011, and have been strengthened since.

As of Tuesday, Arkansas Nuclear One, in Russellville, has gotten about five inches of rain since Friday, NRC Resident Inspector Margaret Tobin said. “It’s a little muddy at the site, but that’s about it.”

At Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi, 20 miles southwest of Vicksburg, only light rain has been reported. “We actually had very little rain at the site, compared to what was expected,” said Matt Young, the NRC’s Senior Resident at the plant.

The NRC is closely following events and getting periodic updates from the National Weather Service on conditions that might affect any of the Gulf Coast nuclear plants. Additionally, the resident inspectors are monitoring local weather conditions to remain aware of conditions that could affect continued safe operations of the plants.

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