REFRESH — Let There Be Light

lightbulbMore than 60 years ago this month – though not related to the holiday season as far as we know — a string of bulbs lit up courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory. What was the significance? The electricity used to power the bulbs was generated by an experimental breeder reactor and was the first electricity produced using the heat of nuclear fission.

Photo from the Department of Energy

refresh leafREFRESH is an occasional series where we rerun previous posts. This first ran in December 2014. 

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.

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

Ten Things You May Not Know — About Nuclear Power and the NRC

Stephanie West
Public Affairs Specialist

It’s summer and you might be reading this blog while relaxing in the sun or otherwise taking it easy. So, just for fun, we’ve listed 10 nuclear-related facts you might find interesting, albeit light, reading:

1. Nothing lasts forever. Every year or two, reactor operators spend about a month, removing and replacing about one-third of a reactor’s fuel and performing various maintenance activities during plant outages to make sure reactors perform efficiently. Source: NRC Information Digest

youtube22. No bowling leagues. In order to preserve their objectivity, NRC resident inspectors are discouraged from attending social events where nuclear plant employees are involved. They also may not serve at any nuclear plant longer than seven years.

3. Who at the NRC must train to escape a sinking helicopter? Health physicists in NRC’s Region IV office of course. A handful of them must fly to inspect offshore oil rigs in federal waters. They must be prepared not only to escape a helicopter, but to survive a fire on an oil platform by jumping into the sea and fighting off sharks by kicking them in the snout.

4. Quick question: Where is the largest research reactor in the U.S.? Check below for the answer. But you should know that Research and Test Reactors operating at levels of 2 megawatts thermal (MWt) or greater receive a full NRC inspection every year. The largest U.S. research reactor, which produces 20 MWt, is 75 times smaller than the smallest U.S. commercial power reactor.

5. Once the explosive ingredient in Soviet nuclear warheads, highly enriched uranium was diluted to become the stuff that powered our homes and businesses in the U.S. The Megatons to Megawatts program was born from a 1993 agreement between the U.S. and Russia to reduce the stockpile of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium.

6. Everyone loves this story. MB900371234The most all-time viewed post on this NRC blog is “Putting the Axe to the Scram Myth” with more than 18,000 views since it was originally posted in 2011.

7. It’s just not easy being a spent nuclear fuel transportation cask. Each must be designed to survive a 30-foot drop onto an unyielding surface, a puncture test, a fully engulfing fire at 1,425 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes and immersion under water.

8. The Watts Bar nuclear plant makes its mark both on this century and the last. Unit 1 was the last U.S. reactor to come online in the 20th century and Unit 2 is expected to be the first to come online in the 21st. Read more about the history of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in our blog post: Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century.

9. Months of planning, thorough inspections, dozens of law enforcement officials, a specially equipped truck – and a S.W.A.T. team. It sounds like a checklist for an action movie. Instead it was used to move a mini refrigerator-sized irradiator in Anchorage about 2.5 miles. These small irradiators are used to sterilize medical equipment and products, and contain a sealed source of radioactive material. They are protected to keep the public and environment safe from exposure, but also to keep it out of the hands of terrorists.

reportcard10. It’s no “easy A.” In addition to years of related experience, NRC-licensed nuclear plant operators must receive extensive classroom, simulator and on-the-job training. But they also must be certified as physically and mentally fit to be an operator. Source: NRC Information Digest

Answer: National Institute of Standards & Technology, Gaithersburg, Md.

 

Throwback Thursday – A July Trip to Tennessee

tbtzechOn July 16, 1987, this Chairman visited the NRC’s Technical Training Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. The TTC was transferred to the agency’s Office of Analysis and Evaluation of Operational Data as part of a reorganization that year. During his visit to the TTC, the then-Chairman was briefed on a reactor simulator that had been leased from the Westinghouse Electric. Co., for training in PWR technology.

Can you name the Chairman?

Defense in Depth Part I: A War for Safety

Thomas Wellock
Historian

One hundred years ago the French and German armies of World War I devised a new defensive strategy called “defense in depth.” Its aim was to prevent an enemy breakthrough of an army’s frontline with a deep system of interconnected trench lines and strong points.

Defense in depth circa WWI. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Defense in depth circa WWI. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Popularized in all its desperation and grisly effectiveness in films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, defense in depth has become the NRC’s official metaphor in the battle to protect the public from radiation hazards. It is the key concept governing nuclear safety in using multiple strategies in safety-system design, operations, and emergency procedures and planning.

The NRC’s use of the term has roots in the Manhattan Project of World War II. Military metaphors seemed particularly apt for those charged with ensuring the safety of the early plutonium production reactors at Hanford, Washington. They worried about the potential for a reactor “catastrophe” from a radiation release of “explosive violence.” Their solution was to erect multiple “lines of defense” of trained operators and emergency personnel, carefully sealed fuel rods, shielding walls, backup cooling and power systems, and even a backup to the backup shutdown system—a final solution so drastic that it would destroy the reactor to save the operators lives. Fittingly, its moniker derived from another military term — the “last ditch” safety device.

After the war, the “lines of defense” in reactor safety were categorized into functions by Atomic Energy Commission safety committees:

  1. Features that made a reactor inherently safe;
  2. “Static,” or physical, barriers, such as containment buildings, were to halt the escape of radiation; and
  3. Active systems were to shut down and cool the reactor in the case of unusual conditions.

While the AEC’s safety approach became more coherent, there was no consensus among experts over the relative importance of each category. Some experts focused mostly on a design’s physical barriers, while others gave weight to all three categories and included reactor operation too.

Over time, “defense in depth” replaced the scattered concept of “lines of defense.” Its first use appears to have been in 1958 to describe safety design in the plutonium extraction processes at Hanford. In a 1965 letter to Congress, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg applied the term to civilian reactor safety as an accident prevention and mitigating strategy.

It provided, he wrote, “multiple safeguards against the occurrence of a serious accident, and for containment of fission product release.” The term stuck.

But the story continues. The Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research has published a report on the history of defense in depth up to the present, which covers the term’s application to the whole nuclear fuel cycle. It’s a fascinating look at how this bedrock safety concept has evolved under the influence of events and new knowledge. We’ll have more on this report on Wednesday.

 

 

Throwback Thursday – It Happened in 1984

PalladinoNRC Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino visits the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant at Port Gibson, Miss., in July 1984. The operating license for the plant was issued in November that year and commercial operation began a year later, in July 1985. The photo is from the agency’s 1984 annual report.