REFRESH: On the Wild Side at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

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

refresh leafExamples 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.”

An alligator crossing sign at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant.
An alligator crossing sign at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant.

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.

Untangling Foreign Involvement in New Reactors

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
 

For the second time in two years, the NRC’s administrative law judges have offered a decision on what role overseas companies can play in building and operating new U.S. nuclear power plants.

stpIn this most recent case, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board concluded that Toshiba’s participation in the South Texas Project new reactor project south of Houston is acceptable.

When Congress created the Atomic Energy Act, it included language that prohibits “foreign ownership, control or domination” of nuclear facilities. In an August 2012 decision, the Board examined a company applying for a new reactor at the Calvert Cliffs site in Maryland. That decision concluded the company was 100 percent foreign-owned and therefore ineligible for a reactor construction and operation license.

The South Texas case presents a different set of facts. The company applying for two new reactors, Nuclear Innovation North America, is a joint venture. A U.S. utility, NRG Energy, owns about 90 percent of NINA. Toshiba’s North American subsidiary owns the rest.

The NRC has previously approved joint ownership of U.S. reactors where the foreign partner owned more than 10 percent. In the South Texas application, however, the NRC technical staff determined in May 2013 that Toshiba’s overall financial support of the project equaled improper control or domination.

The Board’s decision on the South Texas new reactor application explores some previously uncharted territory. Legal precedent on foreign ownership almost exclusively refers to transferring the licenses of existing reactors. Those license transfers largely have been made in the context of ownership percentage. The Board’s decision applies the terms “control or domination” to the South Texas arrangement.

The Board relied on the NRC’s existing standard review plan to resolve the “control or domination” question. The ultimate decision is based on the South Texas application’s corporate ownership structure and other measures. The Board concluded that those measures meet the review plan’s aim of ensuring U.S. control of safety-related decisions.

Both the NRC staff and the groups opposing the South Texas new reactors have the opportunity to appeal the Board’s decision to the five-member Commission in charge of the NRC. A final decision on the South Texas proposal will take a couple more years due to ongoing technical reviews.

A Fire at South Texas Project – How the NRC Responded

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV
 
The Region IV Incident Response Center during an emergency exercise last month.
The Region IV Incident Response Center during an emergency exercise last month.

At 4:40 p.m. Central Time Tuesday, officials at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant near Bay City, Texas, notified the NRC’s Operations Center that a fire had broken out in the main transformer of Unit 2, causing an automatic shutdown. Unit 1 was unaffected and continued to operate at full power.

As designed, the plant’s emergency diesel generators energized to power safety-related equipment. All four auxiliary feedwater pumps started as required to supply power to the plant’s steam generators for cooling. However, power to non-safety related electrical buses was lost, cutting off power to the plant’s reactor coolant pumps. As part of the plant’s design, natural draft circulation continued to cool the plant’s shutdown reactor to remove decay heat.

The plant declared an Unusual Event – the lowest of four categories of nuclear emergency — due to the transformer fire at 4:55 p.m. The plant’s on-site fire brigade responded and quickly extinguished the blaze, so no off-site assistance was required.

The NRC’s resident inspector, who was on-site at the time, responded to the event by going to the plant’s control room to observe the licensee’s response to the event. The NRC’s Region IV Office in Arlington, Texas, activated its Incident Response Center to monitor the event.

There were no personnel injuries and no radiological releases were reported. The Unusual event was terminated at 7:47 p.m., although the NRC’s resident inspector remained onsite until about midnight.

As part of its ongoing oversight, the NRC will monitor the licensee’s follow-up actions. These include identification of the cause of the transformer fire; a review of the behavior of the plant’s electrical protection systems; and various repair activities.

“Overall, from what we now know, plant operators responded well to the event,” said Acting Deputy Regional Administrator Steve Reynolds. “The NRC will conduct an independent and comprehensive assessment of this incident as part of its oversight process.”