NRC Commission Approves More Post-Fukushima Upgrades to Nuclear Plants

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

JLL gauge iconThe NRC has already ordered numerous upgrades to nuclear power plant safety based on what we’ve learned about the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Now, the NRC’s Commission is doing more. They have just approved a two-track approach for additional improvements to systems at 31 U.S. reactors that would vent pressure during accidents.

The Commission’s decision is outlined in a Staff Requirements Memorandum. It provides details about the decision, but this is the bottom line: the NRC will issue an Order requiring stronger venting systems and will use the agency’s rulemaking process to consider the best approach by which these 31 reactors can keep radioactive material from the environment during a severe accident.

Some background: Some of the U.S. reactors that are similar to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant have vents that reduce pressure during an accident and keep water flowing to the reactor to cool the fuel. The venting systems at Fukushima played a role in their nuclear crisis, and the NRC, last March, issued an Order to the 31 plants with similar designs to take action. The plants either had to install vents or improve their existing venting system. The goal was to make sure the vents can operate during the early phases of an accident, even if the plant lost all power for an extended time.

In their latest decision, the NRC Commission votes to further strengthen these vents. The NRC staff has 60 days to finalize an Order for these enhancements. Generally speaking, these additional requirements mean the vents could handle the pressures, temperatures and radiation levels from a damaged reactor, and that plant personnel could operate the vents under these conditions.

As part of the same decision, the Commissioners directed the staff to begin a formal rulemaking on filtering methods that would prevent radioactive material from escaping containment in an accident, either through new filter systems or a combination of existing systems. The staff will develop the technical analysis, a proposed rule and then a final rule. Throughout this process, the public and various stakeholders will have opportunities to submit comments and attend meetings to ask questions. And there will be many future posts about the progress!

Two years after Fukushima: Enhancements to U.S. Nuclear Plants Continue

David Skeen
Director, Japan Lessons-Learned Directorate

JLD vertical CToday is the second anniversary of the terrible earthquake, related tsunami and the resulting nuclear accident in Japan. Two years ago, the world watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Almost from those very first days, the NRC began to focus on learning from the incident to enhance our reactor safety – and to make sure such an incident would never happen here at home.

For example, U.S. nuclear power plants are using existing programs to address issues identified during last year’s walkdowns, which examined each plant’s earthquake and flooding protection features. Our resident inspectors are watching over that work using our Reactor Oversight Process, and we expect to audit approximately 20 plants (10 for earthquake walkdowns and 10 for flooding) in the spring and early summer to ensure the plants remain protected from such hazards.

We also continue to work with the plants on their re-analysis of flooding and earthquake hazards. We prioritized the flooding re-evaluations last year, examining several factors to give plants one, two or three years to submit their work. The first set of plants should have their responses in by tomorrow, and we’ll review the re-evaluated hazards before issuing a safety assessment for each site. The first set of earthquake hazard re-evaluations, for plants in the central and eastern United States, will be due in September. We’ll give those documents a similar review and resulting safety assessment for each plant.

The plants have also obtained additional equipment that can help keep the reactor and spent fuel pools cool if normal power sources are lost for extended periods of time, as was the case at Fukushima. This work responds to one of three Orders we issued to U.S. nuclear power plants in March 2012. Every plant provided a status report on complying with those Orders in October 2012, and we’ve found that all plants appear to be on track to meet the Orders’ requirements by the required deadlines.

The plants have also recently submitted their integrated approaches to comply with the Orders, and we’re reviewing those plans. By the end of April we’re also expecting the plants to provide the their assessments of how many staff a plant needs to have on hand to respond to a loss of power involving every reactor at a given site

The staff’s latest update to the Commissioners on Fukushima-related activities provides a more detailed look at how each of the NRC Near-Term Task Force’s recommendations is being implemented. While all of the Fukushima-related items are important, we’ve made sure U.S. reactors are paying proper attention to maintaining plant safety, any ongoing work of greater safety benefit or other existing high-priority actions protective of safety.

Two Important Reports about Steam Generators at SONGS Go Public

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer

The NRC made public today redacted versions of two reports prepared by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries concerning the steam generator replacement at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

The Steam Generator Root Cause Analysis Report and a Supplemental Technical Evaluation Report  were prepared by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as part of its effort to determine what contributed to the unusual wear in the steam generators after they were installed in 2010 and 2011 at Units 2 and 3, respectively.

The NRC is using a variety of regulatory actions, such as inspections and investigations, to ensure that it is comprehensively addressing the issues that have arisen at the SONGS nuclear power plant.

On Sept. 28, 2012, the NRC began an expansive investigation on the completeness and accuracy of information that Edison provided to the NRC regarding the steam generator degradation under the NRC’s regulatory requirements.

These reports are included in an array of documents being reviewed by the NRC as we investigate whether Edison demonstrated sufficient due diligence in its oversight of the redesign of the steam generators; how design changes that were made or rejected may have affected the safety of the steam generators; and the truthfulness and accuracy of all the information Edison has provided to the NRC regarding the redesign and replacement of the steam generators.

Separately from the ongoing investigation, the NRC is evaluating Edison’s responses to questions the NRC has raised about their request to restart Unit 2 at the plant.

Additionally, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is reviewing issues related to the Confirmatory Action Letter issued by the NRC staff to Southern California Edison.

NRC’s 25th Regulatory Information Conference Kicks Off Next Week; A Look Back at Its History Goes Live Today

Lorna P. Kipfer
RIC 2013 Conference Program Specialist

The NRC’s 25th annual Regulatory Information Conference is being held in Maryland next week, from March 12-14, with an exciting agenda. Attendees will be able to attend technical sessions on a variety of topics associated with operating reactors, new and advanced reactors, fuel cycle facilities, nuclear security, safety research, and safety culture policies.

What’s new this year? You’ll find a Force-on-Force Inspection Program display of tactical equipment used during NRC Force-on-Force inspections and for our tech-savvy attendees we’re offering a mobile optimized agenda page. Other events include tours of the NRC’s Operations Center. Visit here for information on these and other new items offered this year.

Representatives from government, industry, international agencies and other stakeholders are among this year’s registrants.

The first RIC registration in 1989.
The first RIC registration in 1989.

Usually just called the RIC, the conference began in 1989 as a small gathering on nuclear safety regulation. Today, it is the one annual public event where regulators, industry officials, and concerned citizens come together for a collective dialogue on nuclear reactor and materials safety.

In a video posted to YouTube today, NRC Historian Tom Wellock interviews NRC staff and former employees who have been important to the start and development of the RIC.

At this year’s RIC, NRC Chairman, Allison M. Macfarlane will deliver the keynote remarks to open the first session. Bill Borchardt, NRC’s Executive Director for Operations will follow with his presentation. Plenary sessions with Commissioners Kristine L. Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William D. Magwood, and William C. Ostendorff are included throughout the program.

The RIC is open to industry representatives, stakeholders and members of the public and admission is free. You can register onsite. More information is available on the RIC website.

Licensing Project Managers – The NRC’s Expert Generalists

Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson
Licensing Project Manager

A licensing project manager for an operating reactor has a lot of responsibilities. We coordinate technical reviews, interface with the licensee, support the regional staff and the resident inspectors, respond during any incidents, and serve as the headquarters point of contact for anything related to the plant. We’re basically expert generalists who need a solid understanding of all the operational and licensing situations for each plant– and, importantly – the ability to communicate about it all.

I’ve been a licensing project manager for about three years, currently for the Palo Verde nuclear facility in Arizona and Columbia Generating Station in Washington State. The majority of my time is spent coordinating the review of license amendment requests. A plant’s license is much more complicated than your driver’s license. It does far more than just grant permission to operate a nuclear facility. The license also specifies how it is to be run.

Imagine having a driver’s license that required you to keep the gas tank more than half full and all four tires inflated to a certain pressure. If you wanted to wait until only a quarter of a tank remained to get more gas or you wanted to change the pressure level in your tires, you’d have to apply to amend your license. I am the person who receives those equivalent requests for my particular sites.

Those requests are then reviewed by a team of appropriate scientists, engineers, and experts, with the project manager responsible for engaging those experts and keeping an eye on the entire review. The project manager is in charge of coordinating schedules, interfacing with the licensee (the operator of the plant), ensuring that public documents are written in plain English, and packaging the final approval or denial of the request with a clear justification. In my experience, licensees have four to12 such requests at the NRC at a time. The project manager needs to understand the technical aspects of each one.

The project manager also needs to be aware of conditions at the site. The project manager serves as the headquarters point of contact for all matters related to the site, so it’s very important to know what’s going on. Every workday, I participate in a conference call with the resident inspectors and the region to discuss plant status and concerns. If the region or the residents need any headquarters support, I am there to provide it directly or to arrange it.

One of the most important and, thankfully, infrequent duties of the project manager is to respond in case of an incident at the site. If the headquarters operations center is activated, I will report there and provide site specific information. Having someone there who is familiar with the site, the conditions at the site, and any licensing and operational issues is important.

We also have the pleasure and responsibility of ensuring that the NRC is being open and transparent to the public. Licensing project managers run many of the site-specific headquarters public meetings.

So, while licensing project managers need to understand the highly technical aspects of a review or a performance issue, we also need to see the big picture, and how one issue may relate to other issues or actions at the plant. And we have to communicate it to all stakeholders – both inside and outside the NRC. It’s a great job, and one I’m happy to be doing. But it’s not easy being an expert generalist.

New England’s Nuclear Power Plants Readying for Nemo

nemomapNeil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I


New England states and other parts of the Northeast are battening down the hatches in anticipation of a winter storm dubbed “Nemo” by the Weather Channel.

Unlike “Finding Nemo,” the 2003 hit movie from Disney featuring a clown fish dad roaming the seas in search of his wayward son, those in the storm’s path won’t have to look far to see its impacts. Indeed, forecasts are calling for blizzard conditions and upwards of two feet of snow in the Boston area.

As with other significant storms, nuclear power plants that could be affected will be required to make preparations. These are actions such as ensuring that fuel oil tanks are adequately filled; that there are no materials on plant grounds that could become airborne missiles amid high winds; and that water-tight doors and other openings are properly closed in the event flooding becomes an issue.

NRC inspectors stationed at all operating plants on a full-time basis will likewise be busy, as they independently verify the facilities – particularly the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire — are positioned for whatever wicked weather comes their way. To help guide those evaluations, the inspectors will follow a procedure and checklist focused on adverse weather protection.

Once the storm arrives, plant operators have plans that guide their responses. For instance, if sustained wind speeds exceed a certain level, a plant would have to shut down. Also, if flooding were to be greater than pre-determined thresholds, an emergency declaration would have to be made and a shutdown may be necessary.

During Superstorm Sandy last October, three nuclear power plants ended up shutting down for reasons that included high water intake levels and electrical grid disturbances, but all did so safely and effectively. As always, the work that takes place before the storm arrives is an essential part of ensuring any storm-related problems can be handled in a prompt, safe manner.