A Chilling Effect is Not Cool

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The NRC Region II office issued a “chilling effect” letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar nuclear plant this week, but what exactly does that mean?

The “chilling” has nothing to do with weather, but rather refers to a workplace environment where employees may be hesitant to raise safety concerns for fear of retaliation or because previously raised concerns were not adequately addressed.

wbIn the Watts Bar case and several others before it, the NRC identified situations where some employees told the NRC they might be reluctant to talk to their supervisors, managers or even the NRC about safety issues because they were afraid of potential effects on their jobs. At Watts Bar, these concerns arose in the operations department, but the NRC takes those concerns very seriously whether they are isolated or more widespread.

When the NRC issues a “chilling effect” letter to a nuclear plant or any other licensed facility, it is designed to ensure that those organizations are taking appropriate actions to foster a workplace environment that encourages workers at all levels to raise safety concerns without the fear of retaliation and management to promptly and effectively address the concerns.

The NRC met with TVA officials March 22 to discuss the work environment concerns and the letter issued the following day simply puts into writing the expectations that the NRC has for TVA to address the concerns at the Watts Bar plant.

TVA officials are being asked to provide a plan that describes how work environment issues at the Watts Bar plant will be addressed and then attend another public meeting to discuss both that plan and how the NRC will monitor and inspect any corrective actions.

The NRC is confident that most workers at the Watts Bar plant and throughout the nuclear industry feel safe in raising safety concerns within their own organizations or directly to the NRC. That ability is an important supplement to the NRC inspection program in ensuring the safety of the facilities the agency regulates.

Any attempt to influence that ability will not be tolerated by the NRC and there are other similar letters in the past showing just how uncool the NRC finds any workplace chilling effect.

 

 

The Inspection Beat Goes on at Watts Bar Unit 2

William Jones
Director of the Division of Construction Projects
Region II

An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff install the reactor pressure vessel inside the containment building at Watts Bar Unit 2.
An NRC Construction Resident Inspector watches TVA staff perform construction activities at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The NRC has issued an operating license to the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in Tennessee, bringing the U.S. to 100 commercial reactors. The plant’s owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority, had restarted construction of the incomplete reactor in 2007 and updated its application for Unit 2’s license in 2009.

Since 2007, NRC inspectors have devoted more than 200,000 hours to supporting the agency’s decision that Unit 2 qualifies for a license. There’s more to do, however, before Unit 2 starts splitting atoms and generating electricity, and the NRC’s going to keep an eye on all of that.

The NRC’s two permanent Resident Inspectors at Watts Bar have another full-time resident inspector and additional regional inspectors on site during this period. The inspectors and NRC management follow a well-defined process to monitor a plant as it starts up for the first time.  One of the most obvious steps we’ll monitor is when TVA loads the uranium fuel into the Unit 2 reactor.

Once Unit 2 is ready for the initial reactor startup, the NRC staff will verify TVA has properly calibrated the instruments that monitor the chain reaction even at the lowest sustainable level. The plant operators must also show they can manually shut off the chain reaction. When all those steps are done, the NRC inspectors will watch the operators’ actions as they let Unit 2 start splitting a very small number of atoms.

The next step involves testing the reactor at very low power levels. The chain reaction is affected by changes in coolant water temperature and chemicals in the water. The NRC inspectors will examine the low-power tests to ensure the plant has properly measured changes in the reaction.

As each of these tests is passed, Unit 2 will increase power in small steps and examine the reactor’s response to abnormal events. For instance, if the plant’s turbine stops running the reactor’s heat has lost its normal outlet, so the reactor must shut down. The reactor must also respond properly to shutdown commands from alternate control stations and a simulated loss of power from the electric grid.

If TVA successfully completes all of these steps, Unit 2 will be ready to add about 1,100 megawatts to the electric grid in the Southeast. During this entire process, the NRC’s inspectors will also be gathering and analyzing the information needed to gauge Unit 2’s safety performance under the agency’s Reactor Oversight Process. This process will guide NRC actions at Unit 2 as long as the plant continues to operate.

Counting the Steps to a Final Watts Bar Unit 2 Decision

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The NRC’s Commissioners have given the staff the authority to issue the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a full-power operating license for Unit 2 at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant site in Tennessee. That permission has some strings attached, however, so we’re still months away from our final licensing decision.

wattsbarconstructionsriIf TVA is issued the license, Watts Bar 2 will be the first U.S. nuclear power plant to start operating since 1996, when Watts Bar 1 came online. TVA still has to satisfy the staff that several regulatory requirements for safe operation of Unit 2 have been met. We’re finishing up the licensing and inspection activities we need to conclude TVA is ready to load fuel and operate the reactor, which is near Spring City, Tenn.

We have to be satisfied not only that Unit 2 is safe to operate, but also that TVA can safely transition to operating two reactors at the site. We’re completing a few licensing actions needed to support dual-unit operation at Watts Bar. TVA also has to pass our remaining operational readiness inspections.

Other upcoming milestones include getting a recommendation from the NRC’s Region II Administrator, who has oversight responsibility for all inspections performed at Watts Bar 2. We also need to issue a couple supplements to the reactor’s Safety Evaluation Report.

TVA’s progress in completing construction and testing of Watts Bar 2 will directly influence our completion of the milestones. We may be able to make a licensing decision later this year. TVA has said repeatedly, however, that the actual operating license date depends on several factors and could shift as the final months’ work is completed. While we take TVA’s schedule into consideration for planning our licensing and inspection work, our priority is always on ensuring safety.

If we conclude Unit 2 is safe and ready to receive a license, TVA will still have to successfully complete several tests, including running the reactor at gradually increasing power levels, before the reactor can provide electricity to the grid. The NRC website has more information on the past few years of Watts Bar Unit 2’s licensing and inspection activities.

Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Watts Bar Special Projects Branch
 

Unit 1 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., has a claim to fame as the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century. Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority aspires to have its sister reactor (Watts Bar Unit 2) make its own historic claim.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.
Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

If the NRC concludes that the reactor is safe to operate and approves its operating license next year, Watts Bar Unit 2 could become the first new commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in the 21st century.

To understand a little of the history of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, let’s rewind to a time when Schoolhouse Rock premiered and the first mobile phone call was made in New York City — a time predating the NRC. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlighted construction of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 under the “two-step licensing process,” where construction permits and operating licenses were issued separately.

In 1985, construction quality issues at its plants caused TVA to stop work at both Watts Bar Units. Eventually, TVA resolved the issues and completed construction of Unit 1, and the NRC issued its operating license in 1996.

Fast-forward to more recent activities. TVA decided in 2007 to reboot the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction and licensing process. They submitted an update to their original license application to the NRC in 2009.

Other recent applicants have elected to use the combined license application process, where we issue a single license to both construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. However, because of the unique history of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA chose to continue under the two-step licensing process. So, NRC staff developed a regulatory framework and established a licensing approach tailored specifically to the project.

We updated our construction inspection program associated with the two-step licensing process to provide guidance that reflects current NRC practices. For example, the NRC staff identified areas for further inspection at Unit 2 by screening applicable communications, allegations and other open items in the review.

The NRC staff also developed inspection guidance specific to TVA’s refurbishment program, which replaces or refurbishes systems and components at Watts Bar Unit 2. TVA’s resolution of key safety issues and the continued progress of construction inspection activities drive our review schedule.

If the operating license is issued next year, the NRC’s job doesn’t just end. We’d continue to inspect start-up testing required for power ascension and to oversee that Unit 2 transitions into the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process before it can begin producing commercial power.

And, of course, the Resident Inspectors, the agency’s eyes and ears at the plant, would continue to carry out day-to-day inspection work to ensure safety and security is monitored and inspected during licensing and throughout the transition to commercial operation.

For more information about the Watts Bar Unit 2 project, visit the NRC’s website. There will be a Commission briefing Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. on the license application review. You get details about the briefing from the meeting notice. We’ll also do a live webcast.