New NRC head testifies that the commission is learning lessons from Fukushima

With everything that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has assessed to date, it continues to believe that there is no imminent risk from continued operation of existing U.S. nuclear power plants related to the problems pointed up in last year’s Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster in Japan, said new NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane.

Mcfarlane testified July 24 at a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing, run jointly by the subcommittees on Energy and Power and Environment and the Economy, called “NRC Policy and Governance Oversight.”

At the same time, the NRC’s assessment of insights from the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi leads it to conclude that additional requirements should be imposed on licensees to increase the capability of nuclear power plants to mitigate beyond-design-basis extreme natural phenomena, Macfarlane said in prepared testimony.

“The Commission has approved the staff’s prioritization of the recommendations of the Near-Term Task Force (‘Task Force’) into three categories, or tiers,” Macfarlane wrote. “Tier 1 consists of actions to be taken without delay, and these actions are underway. Tier 2 is the next set of actions that can be initiated as soon as critical skill sets become available and pertinent information is gathered and analyzed. Tier 3 recommendations require that the staff conduct further study or undertake shorter-term actions first.”

On March 9, the commission authorized the NRC staff to issue three immediately effective orders to U.S. commercial nuclear reactors. These orders address what the NRC determined to be the recommendations from the agency’s Japan Near-Term Task Force Report issued in July 2011 that could be implemented without delay. The orders, issued by the staff on March 12, require several things, including that:

  • licensees must develop, implement, and maintain guidance and strategies to maintain or restore core cooling, containment, and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities following a beyond-design-basis extreme natural event;
  • licensees with BWR Mark I and Mark II containments must have a reliable hardened vent to remove decay heat and maintain control of containment pressure within acceptable limits following events that result in the loss of active containment heat removal capability or prolonged station blackout; and
  • all operating reactors must have a reliable indication of the water level in spent fuel storage pools.

For all three of these orders, licensees are required to submit their plans for implementing these requirements to the NRC by Feb. 28, 2013, and complete full implementation no later than two refueling cycles after submittal of a licensee’s plan or Dec. 31, 2016, whichever comes first. Also, licensees are required to provide periodic status reports so that the staff can monitor their progress in implementing the orders and take prompt and appropriate regulatory action, if necessary.

In addition to the three orders issued on March 12, licensees were also issued a “request for information” that includes the following:

  • Licensees were asked to perform and provide the results of a reevaluation of the seismic and flooding hazards at their sites using current NRC requirements and guidance, and identify actions that are planned to address vulnerabilities. The results will determine whether additional regulatory actions are necessary (e.g., ordering plant modifications).
  • Licensees were asked to develop a methodology and acceptance criteria and perform seismic and flooding walkdowns. The NRC expects any performance deficiencies that are identified would be addressed by the site’s corrective action program. Licensees were asked to confirm that they will be using the walkdown procedures jointly developed by the NRC and industry or provide alternative, plant-specific procedures.
  • Licensees were requested to assess the ability of their current communications to perform under conditions of onsite and offsite damage and prolonged loss of alternating current (AC) electrical power. Licensees also were requested to assess plant staffing levels needed to respond to a large-scale natural event and to implement strategies contained in the emergency plan.

The remaining near-term recommendations are made up of two rulemakings addressing station blackout and integration of emergency procedures. The commission directed the use of an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the station blackout rulemaking to allow for early stakeholder involvement and formal comments. The commission also designated the station blackout rulemaking as a high-priority activity with a goal of completion within 24-30 months from October 2011. The emergency procedures integration rulemaking also used an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit early stakeholder input. These notices were issued in March and April respectively.

There are several plants with less than top-level operations

While many plants performed very well during the past year of heightened inspections, there is currently one plant in a shutdown condition due to significant performance concerns, and one plant in Column Four, on a five-column scale, of the Reactor Oversight Process Action Matrix after experiencing issues that the NRC views as safety significant, Macfarlane noted. There are three plants in Column Three, which indicates declining performance, 12 plants in Column Two, and the remaining 87 plants are in Column One. The NRC conducted 21 special inspections during 2011—a greater number than at any point in recent memory.

There are currently two units in extended shutdowns – Fort Calhoun and Crystal River Unit 3. Two units at the North Anna plant were in extended shutdown last year due to the August 2011 earthquake in Virginia. They are now successfully in operation again.

In addition, the two units at the San Onofre plant have been shut down since the beginning of the year due to problems with tube wear in their new steam generators. On March 27, the NRC issued a Confirmatory Action Letter documenting actions that Southern California Edison officials have agreed to take related to unusual wear on steam generator tubes prior to restarting both units.

On the licensing front, the NRC staff completed the safety and environmental reviews of the first two new reactor combined license applications for Vogtle in Georgia and Summer in South Carolina. The staff also issued the Design Certification for the AP1000. Among the existing reactor fleet, the NRC staff issued seven reactor license renewals. They also successfully completed the review and approval of two pilot applications for voluntarily transitioning to National Fire Protection Association 805 – a risk-informed, performance-based standard for fire protection at nuclear power plants – and worked with stakeholders to establish a submittal and review schedule for 29 anticipated transition applications.

The NRC staff issued three new uranium recovery licenses and authorized the restart of one such facility. NRC staff is currently reviewing two applications for expansions of current facilities and two applications for new facilities, while continuing to receive and review license renewal applications for existing uranium recovery facilities. NRC is expecting a total of 27 applications for new uranium recovery facilities, expansions, and restarts through 2013.

The NRC staff issued a license for the AREVA Eagle Rock centrifuge enrichment facility to be built in Idaho, the first such license approval issued in almost five years. In late February, MRC issued the Safety Evaluation Report and Final Environmental Impact Statement for the GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment license application to construct a laser-based enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C., and the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board held a hearing on the application earlier in July.

NRC continued implementation of the License Tracking System and the National Source Tracking System. It also issued a final policy on the protection of sealed radiation sources containing radioactive cesium chloride, which are used in blood irradiation, bio-medical and industrial research, and calibration of instrumentation and radiation measuring instruments. In addition, it recently issued (with its partners at the Electric Power Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy) a new seismic model that will be used by nuclear power plants in the central and eastern United States for seismic re-evaluations.

Macfarlane, designated by President Barack Obama as chairman of commission, was sworn in on July 9. She will serve a term ending June 30, 2013. Most recently she was an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She has served on National Academy of Sciences panels on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons issues. From 2010 to 2012 she served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, created by the Obama Administration to make recommendations about a national strategy for dealing with the nation’s high level nuclear waste.

She replaced as NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, who ignited a storm of protest from some members of Congress and fellow commissioners for a supposedly autocratic, confrontational management style.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.