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 – RTR Gets a Presidential Viewing

RTR1020bPresident Dwight Eisenhower tours the Oak Ridge National Lab’s “swimming pool” research reactor, flown from the U.S. to Geneva for the United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. This concept soon became a model for numerous research reactors around the world. Now check your history books. What year was this?

A Monday Quiz — A Blue Glow

The Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory uses plate type fuel in a clover leaf arrangement. The blue glow around the core is known as Cherenkov radiation. Courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory.

This Advanced Test Reactor runs tests that determine how fuels and materials react when bombarded by streams of neutrons and gamma rays under a variety of pressure and temperature conditions. Information that would normally require years to gather from normal reactor operations can be obtained in a matter of weeks or months. The primary “customer” of the reactor is the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

The NRC licenses 31 research and test reactors in 21 states (as of 2014); eight research reactors are being decommissioned. We also license the operators and conduct some 50 inspections each year. DOE, however, regulates this particular test reactor.

Quiz:

Where is this test reactor located?
What scientist (and Nobel Prize winner) gave his name to the blue glow seen in this photo?

 

Emergency Preparedness on a Smaller Scale: Research Reactors

Michael Norris
Reactor Licensing Team Leader
Emergency Preparedness Division
 

When you think of the NRC’s role in emergency preparedness, nuclear power plants probably come first to mind. While we certainly pay a lot of attention to commercial reactors, we also oversee emergency plans for plants that make nuclear fuel, permanently shut down plants and sites that store spent power plant fuel.

Yet another area of emergency preparedness we oversee involves research and test reactors.

rtrThese “non-power” reactors don’t generate electricity, but they contribute to almost every field of science. These small facilities play important roles in research, testing and education on college campuses, and at government agencies across the country.

The NRC requires research and test reactors to maintain the same sort of emergency plans that large commercial reactors do. The NRC requires that these plans include, among other things, how to assess and classify abnormal events, how to respond to events, and how to establish planning zones for environmental monitoring and protective actions if needed.

The plans are very simple for research and test reactors since they are relatively small compared to a commercial nuclear power reactor. In fact, the largest NRC-regulated research reactor is about 75 times smaller than the smallest commercial reactor. Research and test reactor planning zones range in size from the building the reactor sits in to only about a half-mile radius around the facility – much smaller than the 10-mile emergency zone for power reactors.

Research and test reactors are required to train personnel and hold emergency preparedness exercises, and the NRC routinely inspects the plans to make sure they meet our requirements.

Should anything ever occur at these small non-power reactors, the NRC makes sure the facility staff know what to do and how to react to make sure people living or working or attending school in the area are safe, and that the environment is not impacted. It’s just another facet of what the NRC does on a large scale every day.