Making Recent Safety Enhancements Part of the NRC Routine

Stephen G. Burns

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.

Earth Scientists Help Assure Nuclear Safety

Britt Hill
Senior Advisor for Repository Science
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.

Earth science is all around us – the NRC is no exception. For us, the foundations of nuclear safety rest on making sure a site has natural characteristics suitable for a nuclear facility. The geosphere (the soil, water, rock and atmosphere) at the site also must support the presence of a facility. At the same time, the surrounding environment must be protected from any impacts from the facility. And, of course, nuclear facilities are designed to be safe from natural hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes.

More than 100 earth scientists work at the NRC to make sure all of that happens.

Nuclear facilities are found in many different locations in the U.S., from the coastal plains of Florida to the oft-frozen shores of the Great Lakes and out to the deserts of Arizona. Each location has a unique set of natural conditions that must be understood by NRC earth scientists. To gain this understanding, NRC earth scientists gather information from field observations, laboratory tests and mathematical models. We use this information to help us figure out how geological and environmental systems work individually, and together as a natural system. Then, we can see if adding a nuclear facility to the natural system can be done safely and in a way that protects the environment.

We know the characteristics of Earth’s natural system have changed through time. The NRC’s earth scientists have to consider how the natural system might change in the next several decades, or longer.

For example, could the changes in climate patterns affect operation of a nuclear power plant? What size earthquakes might occur in the future, especially in areas that haven’t had many earthquakes in the last century? And with the effect human activity has already had on the environment, will a proposed facility add too many additional impacts? These and many other important questions must be answered confidently by NRC earth scientists, so safety and environmental protection is assured.

So, don’t be surprised to learn that in addition to all the nuclear engineers, NRC staff includes experts in environmental sciences like marine and terrestrial biology, wetlands ecology and pollution chemistry.

That’s in addition to the geological scientists who are experts in earthquake geology, surface-water flow, severe weather and soil stability, just to name a few. And don’t forget, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane is also an earth scientist who once worked on the Himalayan Mountains! She talks about her experiences as an earth scientist on the NRC’s YouTube channel.

To learn more about what some other earth scientists do at the NRC, check out these NRC YouTube videos:

3 Minutes with an NRC Hydrologist

3 Minutes with an NRC Meteorologist

Regulating for Mother Nature: Earthquakes and the NRC

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