Q&A With NRC Kids: Radiation and Other Questions

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs
 
One of the participants in the new video takes a question.
One of the participants in the new video takes a question.

Art Linkletter, a 1950s and ‘60s radio and television host, used to interview children for his show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” In that spirit, at last year’s “Take your Child to Work Day” at the NRC, we seized the opportunity to see what kids knew about NRC and related matters – and make it into a video.

We asked: Do you know what radiation is? We got a variety of answers – some vague and some spot on (they’ve obviously been listening to their parents).

Then we asked: Do you know what has radiation in it? No, not candy, despite what the kids might think. But yes, bananas and salt, and it also comes from the sun and from the stars, as explained by the NRC expert who answered the question.

Other questions we asked include what do nuclear power plants generate and what is a regulation. We have a variety of NRC experts answering all the questions – and correcting a few misunderstandings.

We hope you enjoy the video, and that teachers and parents can use it to help explain nuclear matters to school-aged children. And we want thank all the kids who participated in this project.

 

Note: A revised, shortened version of the video is now up!

Inspector General Report Identifies Ways to Improve NRC’s Occupational Training Program

Stephen Dingbaum
Assistant Inspector General
 

oigThe NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is an independent, objective office tasked with auditing NRC programs and operations with a focus on — among other things — detecting fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

The office’s most recent report — an Audit of NRC’s Safety Training and Development for Technical Staff – is now available to the public. The audit set out to determine if NRC’s process for identifying safety training needs efficiently and effectively prepares staff members to perform their regulatory oversight activities.

OIG found that NRC rarely conducted occupational training needs assessments for staff positions responsible for performing safety oversight activities. And, the needs assessments that the agency had prepared were not formally reviewed on a defined basis. By conducting occupational training needs assessments on a defined basis, the NRC can provide safety training to staff in a more efficient and effective way.

OIG’s audit report makes recommendations to improve the agency’s safety-related training program. NRC management stated their general agreement with the audit report and recommendations.

The audit report, including recommendations, can be found here.

Melting Ice with the Peaceful Atom: The NRC and the End of the Cold War

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian
 

Despite not seeing eye-to-eye on many matters, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nevertheless, continued to exchange information about nuclear reactor safety even during the Cold War. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the information exchanges stopped. It wasn’t until the 1985 Reagan-Gobachev summit that discussions were restarted.

U.S.-Soviet Signing Ceremony
U.S.-Soviet Signing Ceremony

After productive meetings with U.S. nuclear safety experts shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986, Soviet expert Anfronik Petrosyants noted: “We hope we have broken the ice of mistrust.”

It appeared something good for reactor safety and Cold War relations might come from the disaster.

A year and a half later the initial talks bore fruit. On the second anniversary of Chernobyl, NRC Chairman Lando Zech met with his Soviet regulatory counterpart for a signing ceremony at the U.S. State Department establishing a joint coordinating committee of U.S. and Soviet experts to share information on nuclear safety issues. It was an important moment for the world. As Hans Blix, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, observed: “a radiation cloud doesn’t know international boundaries.”

But it was an uneasy relationship. Both sides entered negotiations with trepidation born of a long Cold War. In March 1987, an NRC safety team led by Commissioner Frederick Bernthal toured Soviet facilities, including two undamaged reactors at Chernobyl. The delegation reported that Soviet experts were not eager to discuss the possibility of formal cooperation with the U.S. on safety matters. They only agreed to further talks.

At home, some U.S. officials suspected the negotiations were a trap. Carol Kessler, an NRC and State Department staffer, recalled strong opposition to the NRC initiative from military representatives. An officer, she recalled, “stood up on a chair in [an] inter-agency meeting and explained to us how were all ruining the lives of our grandchildren [by negotiating with the Soviets]. It was the most amazing meeting I have ever seen.”

Nevertheless, negotiations gained momentum with support from President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. In December 1987, the two leaders jointly called for a bilateral agreement on reactor safety. The memorandum was signed just four months later. It created 10 working groups to work on safety regulation, operations, research, and radiation protection. Similar agreements quickly followed with other Soviet-bloc nations.

The Soviet memorandum marked a key shift for the NRC in international affairs that outlived the fall of communism. Surrounded by reactors that did not meet Western safety standards and bereft of regulatory agencies like the NRC, former communist countries desperately needed assistance. The bilateral agreements allowed the agency to become an ambassador among them advocating that they establish Western safety standards and regulations.

In a future post, I will detail the 20-year international effort to Westernize the communist nuclear regulatory system.

How the NRC is Responding to the Cooling Water Leak At the Palisades Nuclear Plant

Prema Chandrathil
Region III Public Affairs Officer
 

On Friday, the Palisades plant in Covert, Mich., shut down so plant personnel could find and repair a leak somewhere in the reactor’s cooling water system. Soon after, the NRC dispatched an additional inspector from the Regional III office, located in Lisle, Ill., with a background in mechanical testing and repairs. He supplements the two NRC resident inspectors as they evaluate the plant’s repair activities.

palisades_smallFor more than a week now, the NRC resident inspectors on site have been following the actions taken by workers at Palisades to find the leak. The resident inspectors reviewed the data. They also watched plant workers as they isolated different parts of the system to conduct tests to try and identify exactly where the leak was coming from.

Plant workers caught the problem because the water level in the component cooling water system was going down slowly. This system uses non-reactor water to cool certain safety equipment. Per NRC regulations the system is required to be monitored. When the plant shut down the system was leaking about 35 gallons per hour. This water was captured and released to Lake Michigan through an established monitored release path. The leak did not place the plant or the public in danger.

It’s now believed a heat exchanger in the system is the source of the leak. A heat exchanger is basically a box that contains around 2,000 tubes. The tubes have water running through them to remove heat from equipment, such as seals or pumps. This heat exchanger plays an important role to cool necessary equipment during normal operation, but also during potential accident scenarios.

Palisades has two safety-related heat exchangers in this particular system; both are required by NRC regulations to be in working condition and ready to respond at a moment’s notice. With one of the two exchangers potentially not working right the plant decided to shut down before the regulations required it. NRC regulations state if there is a problem with the heat exchanger it would need to be fixed within 72 hours. If that’s not possible the regulations require the plant to shut down to find the leak and make the appropriate repairs. The plant will only be able to restart when the heat exchanger is working correctly.

Over the weekend all three NRC inspectors continued to monitor and assess the repair work to find and fix the leak. The NRC will continue to closely follow this event and observe how the plant goes about these activities with safety in mind from start to finish. We know the community is interested and concerned about these types of issues and continue to work to keep our commitment to ensure they are informed.

One of our initiatives is to provide summaries of conversations between the NRC and plant staff to the public. A summary of such a conversation about this leak, which took place on Thursday, Feb.14, will be available to the public in the near future. Our assessment of this issue will also be documented in a publically available inspection report.

The Online Public Meeting Schedule – A Resource for the Interested Public

Adam Glazer
Librarian, Public Document Room
 

calendar

The NRC hosts hundreds of meetings throughout the year. Many of the meetings are held so you, the public, can share your thoughts about nuclear power issues. While the meeting topics vary, the way to find out about them doesn’t — you check the Public Meeting Schedule on the NRC’s Web site.

You’ll find the date and time, purpose and agenda, location, and contact name and phone number. When you click on the link to the agenda, you’ll be able to find out more information, such as who from the NRC is planning on attending the meeting. If there’s a telephone icon, there will be a phone number so you can listen in on the meeting remotely instead of traveling to it.

Our goal is to give you at least 10 days advance notice before a meeting, so that you can arrange your schedule to participate if it’s a topic you’re interested in. A word of caution – please keep checking the Web site in case there’s been a change to the meeting. Also, if there’s bad weather, we may have to cancel or postpone the meeting.

In 2012, we posted information about 1,147 meetings. There are sure to be many meetings in 2013. Perhaps one will interest you?

Pilgrim in Cold Shutdown Due to Nemo-the-Nor’easter

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I
 

True to forecasts, New England states bore the brunt of the winter storm dubbed Nemo. With respect to nuclear power plants in the region, only one – Pilgrim, in Massachusetts – had its operations interrupted by the powerful Nor’easter.

pilgAt 9:17 p.m. Friday, three off-site power lines that provide electricity for plant safety systems were knocked out of service. In response, the reactor, as designed, automatically shut down and the facility’s emergency diesel generators activated to provide that power.

One of the criteria for a plant to declare an “Unusual Event” – the lowest of four levels of emergency classification – is the loss of off-site power for more than 15 minutes. As such, Pilgrim made that declaration at 10 p.m. Friday. The NRC issued a press release early Saturday morning.

After one of the lines was restored, the plant was able to terminate the Unusual Event as of 10:55 a.m. Sunday. But there was a setback later in the day when the 345-kilovolt line experienced new problems. Once again, the emergency diesel generators started and will supply the power needed for safety systems until the lines are fully restored.

Since the reactor was already in “cold” shutdown condition, Pilgrim did not need to again declare an Unusual Event.

NRC inspectors, and for a good part of the weekend the NRC Region I Incident Response Center, closely monitored the storm recovery efforts at Pilgrim. That will continue as repair work is carried out and plans for placing the unit back in service are developed.

Stakeholder Input to Revised Enforcement Policy – Value Added!

How we Regulate_onlyLauren Casey
Enforcement Specialist
Office of Enforcement
 

The NRC establishes regulations, inspects those we license to make sure they are meeting those regulations and, at times, steps in to enforce regulations that licensees are violating. This last activity – enforcement – is a very important part of NRC’s oversight.

Key elements of the enforcement process are transparency and openness. Because of that, when the NRC determined the Enforcement Policy should be revised to reflect changes in our regulatory environment and the way the NRC and our stakeholders do business, we made sure to get input from you. For example, we held public meetings and asked for public comments in the Federal Register on the proposed revision.

With the information from this outreach in hand, the NRC revised its Enforcement Policy. Some of the major changes are:

• providing guidance for the use of discretion when considering imposing daily civil penalties;

• clarifying that a violation identified at any NRC-licensed facility with an approved Corrective Action Program may be closed-out as a non-cited violation (a violation for which there is no formal enforcement action) when certain conditions are satisfied;

• adding a new section on civil penalties to individuals who release safeguards information; and

• providing guidance regarding the notification of employers when the NRC discovers damaging or disqualifying information about an individual’s trustworthiness and reliability.

The revised NRC’s Enforcement Policy, effective January 28, 2013, can be found here. Changes to the NRC Enforcement Policy since it was first published, with links to a summary of each change and the Federal Register notice for each change, are maintained on the NRC Office of Enforcement webpage

Questions regarding the Enforcement Policy revision can be directed to Lauren Casey at (301) 415-1038.