Tom Rich is head of the agency’s Information Security Directorate
How would you describe your job in three sentences or less?
My job is to work with others to protect NRC’s information and information systems. This includes providing security training, performing security assessments, testing the vulnerability of our IT systems to phishing and penetration attacks, responding to security incidents and keeping up with situational awareness to see where we may need to strengthen our defenses.
What is the single most important thing you do at work?
Communication with NRC managers and employees regarding threats to our IT systems and data. We do security briefings, security awareness events for staff, and daily meetings with the Chief Information Officer.
What is the single biggest challenge you face?
The dynamic pace of technology changes and the need for cyber defenders to keep up. With the “Internet of Things” becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, the devices we now use in virtually everything we do present security and privacy concerns and introduce a much larger avenue of attack. These devices want to communicate, in some cases sensitive data, through multiple channels with each other and cloud services. The challenge is that these devices do not have adequate security controls built into their design.
What would you consider one of your biggest successes on the job?
We established a cyber security dashboard that measures the NRC’s improvements in security practices. This is an internal mechanism to let NRC stakeholders see what they are doing well and where improvements are needed. Since implementation, we have seen significant improvement in cybersecurity across the agency.
What one thing about the NRC do you wish more people knew?
That we have Resident Inspectors at each of the nuclear plants. I think a lot of the public believe we regulate and inspect from a distance. I do not believe many know we have feet on the ground at the nuclear plants.
Five Questions With is an occasional series where we pose the same five questions to NRC staff.
For more information on National Cyber Security Awareness Month, go here.
UPDATE 2: The NRC’s Region II Incident Response Center was staffed throughout the weekend due to Hurricane Matthew. In all, three plants entered unusual event classifications for storm-related reasons, including electrical grid instability. In addition to the update below on the St. Lucie plant, two other plants, Harris and Robinson, experienced brief losses of offsite power due to the effects of the hurricane. At those two sites, the emergency diesel generators started automatically and provided power until the grid stabilized. — Joey Ledford
UPDATE: While our thoughts are with the people who lost power or suffered damages in the storm, the St. Lucie nuclear plant experienced winds below hurricane strength and did not lose off-site power. The plant’s safety equipment and systems were not affected by the storm and both units remain safely shut down pending a “Disaster Initiated Review.” The review will ensure that evacuation routes are clear and emergency services are available. The units cannot restart until that review is conducted jointly by the NRC and FEMA. The NRC continues to monitor Hurricane Matthew, and will decide later today whether to continue to staff its incident response center in Atlanta. — Joey Ledford
Joey Ledford Public Affairs Officer Region II
It’s hard to believe, but no major hurricane has made landfall in the continental United States since 2005. Hurricane Wilma came ashore in southwest Florida in October of that year as a Category 3 storm, but then skirted the peninsula and went back into the Atlantic.
During this record respite of 11 years, the NRC never stopped training and preparing for big storms, including major hurricanes. Storm preparations were an important part of the post-Fukushima enhancements that have made U.S. commercial nuclear plants safer.
This week, a mammoth storm known as Hurricane Matthew is stalking Florida’s East Coast, having already taken its toll on Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas. The NRC and the companies that operate nuclear facilities began preparations for Matthew long before its anticipated path was clear.
Late Tuesday, the staff at Florida Power and Light’s St. Lucie plant in Port St. Lucie, not far from the predicted landfall, declared an unusual event, the lowest of NRC’s emergency classifications, because of the hurricane warning. The plant staff began severe weather procedures, which include making sure any equipment or debris that could be affected by wind or water has been removed or secured. Staff also conducted walk downs of important plant systems and ensured emergency supplies were adequate.
Similar work was being done at Turkey Point, south of Miami, another FPL plant, and at Brunswick, a Duke Energy station near Southport, N.C.
The NRC’s resident inspectors at each plant, meanwhile, worked to verify the storm preparations were completed as expected, paying special attention to the condition of emergency diesel generators that would be used if the plants lose offsite power.
The NRC maintains 24-hour staffing at any plant expected to experience hurricane-force winds. Since the resident inspectors live near the plant and need to take care of their families and homes, other agency personnel are dispatched to storm sites to help with staffing. One resident inspector from Tennessee volunteered to drive to southeastern North Carolina to staff Brunswick. Some other inspectors at or near the plants on other inspection duties volunteered to stay and provide staffing.
The NRC’s Region II Incident Response Center in Atlanta will be staffed around the clock during the storm, monitoring its path while keeping in contact with plant operators, NRC on-site inspectors, state emergency officials in the affected states and NRC headquarters.
Previous hurricanes have shown that nuclear plants are robust facilities that can withstand extremely high winds and storm surges. As Matthew approaches, the NRC is working to ensure plant operators have taken actions to protect the plants, safely shut down if necessary and ensure power is available to keep the plants in a safe condition until the storm has passed.
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
Examples 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.”
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.
Gerald 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
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
2. 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. The 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.
10. 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.
Cutting-edge robot technology is making it easier to inspect inside spent fuel dry cask storage systems.
You may remember from past blog posts that most spent fuel dry cask storage systems, or casks, consist of stainless steel canisters that are welded shut to safely contain the radioactive contents. The canisters are in turn placed inside thick storage overpacks to shield plant workers and the public from radiation. As these casks remain in use for longer time frames, the ability to inspect canister surfaces and welds will become an important aspect of the NRC’s confidence in their safety.
To be clear: techniques for inspecting canister surfaces and welds have been used for decades. These techniques are collectively known as nondestructive examination (NDE) and include a variety of methods, such as visual, ultrasonic, eddy current and guided wave examinations.
Where do robots come in? They are a delivery system. Robots are being developed to apply these NDE techniques inside casks. Not just any robot will do. These robots need to fit into small spaces and withstand the heat and radiation inside the cask. The state-of-the-art is evolving quickly.
To date, the Electric Power Research Institute and cask manufacturers have successfully demonstrated robotic inspection techniques to NRC staff three times: at the Palo Verde plant in Arizona (Sept. 2-3, 2015), at the McGuire plant in North Carolina (May 16-19, 2016), and just last month, at Maine Yankee (July 12-13, 2016).
At Palo Verde, the robot was used to deliver eddy current testing instrumentation inside a cask. Eddy current testing detects variations in electromagnetically induced currents in metals. Because it is sensitive to surface defects, eddy current testing is a preferred method for detecting cracks. The inspection robot was used to examine part of the mockup canister fabrication weld. An EPRI report provides a detailed description of the Palo Verde test. Future reports are expected on the McGuire and Maine Yankee demonstrations. These demonstrations are helping to refine the robots’ designs.
The Maine Yankee demo was conducted in July 2016 on a cask loaded in 2002. The demo involved a robot maneuvering a camera with a fiber optic probe, which meets the industry code for visual examinations, inside the cask. The probe was able to access the entire height of the canister, allowing the camera to capture images of the fabrication and closure welds. The welds showed no signs of degradation. The canister was intact and in good condition.
The robot was also able to obtain samples from surfaces of the cask and canister. These samples are being analyzed for atmospheric deposits that could cause corrosion.
Ultimately, if degradation is identified, cask users would select their preferred mitigation and repair option. They would have to meet the NRC’s safety requirements before implementing it.
Cask inspections are important to ensure continued safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and robots will continue to be a helpful tool in this important activity.
NRC does its job with regulations contained in the Chapter I of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations. These regulations cover everything from commercial reactors to nuclear materials used in a variety of settings, to storing and disposing of nuclear waste.
A year ago we explained how we keep our rules up to date and unveiled a web page to provide periodic updates on our rulemaking activities. To recap, we identify the rules already under development and any new rules that need to be written. We then rank by priority every rule, regardless of the regulatory area. This way we ensure we’re focusing our resources on the high priority rules that most contribute to the NRC’s key strategic goals of safety and security. We also monitor the progress of our rulemaking activities and develop budget estimates for preparing new rules.
Sometimes our rulemaking plans change. Our Commissioners voted recently to approve a staff recommendation to discontinue eight rulemaking activities that were in the early stages of development.
During our most recent review, the staff identified several rulemakings that were in the early stages of development, but staff believes are no longer needed to meet the NRC’s key strategic goals of safety and security. The staff wrote a paper requesting Commission approval to discontinue nine activities, and discussed a 10th rulemaking the Commission had already decided to discontinue. The Commission agreed to discontinue seven of the nine rulemakings the staff proposed.
The discontinued rulemakings covered a variety of topics, and the basis to discontinue is different for each rulemaking. For example, we have a rulemaking underway to better define the requirements for reactors that have permanently shut down and are decommissioning. We felt that rulemaking was an appropriate place to address decommissioning options, including entombment for power reactors, so we are discontinuing a separate rulemaking on entombment.
We also feel the current case-by-case framework is sufficient for reviewing the limited number of requests we’ve received for alternate disposal pathways for waste with very low activity. So we’re discontinuing a rulemaking to set generic requirements, which had already been on hold for a number of years. Instead, we’ll take another look at the issue as part of an assessment of low level radioactive waste disposal, and if we decide that a rulemaking is necessary, we’ll ask the Commission to revisit the issue.