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US Nuclear Regulatory Commission outlines priorities for next 25 years

09 May 2013

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) annual 2013 Regulatory Information Conference in mid-March saw more than 3,000 nuclear industry executives, experts and government regulators, including representatives from 30 different countries, convene at the NRC’s HQ in Maryland.

The nuclear plant at San Onofre in California is one of two plants that has had its operational licence suspended by the NRC
The nuclear plant at San Onofre in California is one of two plants that has had its operational licence suspended by the NRC

It proved a good place to take the pulse of the US nuclear industry two years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, which caused a major shake-up in the nuclear industry worldwide. 

NRC head Allison M. Macfarlane gave a wide-ranging speech in which she outlined the priorities of her organisation over the next 25 years.

The geologist, who joined the five-strong commission eight months ago, emphasised the changes the industry has seen since the first RIC was organised in 1988, at a time when the industry was trying to unravel the lessons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. More recently, large-scale terrorist attacks and natural phenomena such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have shown the vulnerability of plant and installations, forcing a reappraisal of industry and regulatory priorities.

“Events happened, (which) substantially altered the way we think not only about nuclear safety and security regulation, but about the limits of predictability and certainty,” she said.

Outlining the current situation of the US nuclear sector, she made the following points:
* “We are continuing to address lessons learned from Fukushima.
* “Our operating reactor fleet is getting older, with approximately half of it slated to enter a period of extended operation by 2017.
* “Most of the plants are operating well, while two are in extended shutdown as they address some specific issues.
* “Construction is underway on several new reactors, and we apply our regulations to a new generation of designs.
* “We are addressing regulatory issues that span the entire fuel cycle.
* “We face evolving security threats from a variety of adversaries.
* “We face the challenge of maintaining our core mission in a difficult budget environment.
* “And we have a diverse group of parties who follow our work and seek to maintain an open dialogue with us.”

Macfarlane said the NRC’s efforts to implement lessons learned from the Fukushima accident continue. “The experience served as a sobering reminder of the fact that we don’t know everything about how the Earth behaves, and we must factor this into how we approach nuclear safety.” 

Another main issue is ageing plant. US reactors have been operating longer than most others in the world and there is limited experience to draw from to address life beyond 60 years. The NRC will continue to treat ageing management as a dynamic process, and draw upon domestic and international operating experience to address challenges as they arise. 

Macfarlane said that in terms of day-to-day plant operations, most plants were performing well. Those few experiencing challenges with their safety performance would continue to be the subject of a process of close oversight, inspection, and follow-through. 

The NRC earlier issued its annual report card finding that 99 of the country's 104 operating commercial nuclear power plants were in the two highest performance categories. Three plants were found to have a degraded level of performance, requiring additional oversight. The NRC found a safety issue of "high significance" in a plant in Alabama. One plant in Nebraska is in extended shutdown with significant performance issues.

The San Onofre plant in California has been shut down since 2012 due to the discovery of damaged tubes that transport radioactive water.

The NRC is also continuing its work on new reactors. Last year, combined licenses were issued for four new units, two each at Summer in South Carolina and Vogtle in Georgia and the construction phase has started at both sites. An additional 10 combined license applications for a total of 16 new reactor units are being considered.

In addition to the licensing and oversight of the construction of new plants, the NRC is engaged in reviewing and certifying additional new reactor designs. The agency is nearing completion of the certification of the GE Hitachi Economic Simplified Boiling-Water Reactor (ESBWR) design and reviewing the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries US Advanced Pressurized-Water Reactor (US-APWR) and AREVA – US European Pressurized Reactor (US-EPR) designs. Discussions are also taking place with Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power over the Advanced Power Reactor 1400 (APR-1400) design.

Preparations for the design certification of small modular reactors (SMRs), an evolutionary change for the NRC, are also under way. These include the mPower design from Babcock and Wilcox, SMR from Westinghouse and NuScale Power. 

Small modular reactors may raise new or different safety questions; their size may lead to a wider range of potential sites, while their designs may be more seismically stable. These reactors may also be of interest in other parts of the world to supply water desalination or enhance electricity generation to support a local or regional grid. Regardless of reactor size or type, the NRC says it has integrated lessons learned from Fukushima into the new reactor licensing process.

Macfarlane said the back end of the fuel cycle also requires sustained attention as part of a comprehensive regulatory approach. “I believe that it is incumbent upon the US Congress and the Administration to address a long-term solution for high-level waste disposal and management. And industry also has an important role to play in demonstrating that spent fuel can continue to be stored safely and securely on site until a permanent solution is identified.”

After the decision to shelve plans for the Yucca Mountain deep waste repository, the US Department of Energy recently announced plans to ensure the site selection and construction of an underground repository by 2042.

This process is a priority for the NRC as space constraints in spent fuel pools are already a challenge for many US sites. Greater focus is being placed on dry cask storage, particularly as plants consider extended operation. In the next ten years, additional independent spent fuel storage installations will undergo license renewal and face ageing management requirements.

On a related note, the decisions to close the Crystal River Unit 3 and Kewaunee Power Stations have focused attention on decommissioning. NRC regulations provide that decommissioning will be completed within 60 years of permanent cessation of operations, and regulatory guides outline three options for doing so: 
(1) immediate dismantlement, or DECON
(2) delayed dismantlement, or SAFSTOR
(3) permanent encasing on-site, or ENTOMB. 

While the DECON option allows for the property on which the facility is located to be released for unrestricted use and the NRC license terminated, SAFSTOR permits radioactive material to remain on-site for up to 60 years, and entombment would keep contaminants permanently encased on site. Licensees may also choose to employ a combination of these options, where certain portions of the facility are dismantled and others remain. 

The NRC head said she believed the NRC should be examining decommissioning regulations to ensure they are current and appropriate in preparation for the possibility that other facilities may opt not to renew their licenses. 

“This re-examination is essential because the 40-year duration of a reactor license and the 60-year duration of the SAFSTOR period both exceed the length of most experts’ professional careers. We must ensure that our regulations are sufficiently comprehensive and robust to address issues that will arise long after most of us are retired,” she said.

As regards the overall nuclear security situation, increasing attention is being paid to cybersecurity. In 2009, the NRC published a Cyber Security Rule for nuclear reactors and it has reviewed and approved cybersecurity plans from all of its operating nuclear power plant licensees. Staff are now conducting inspections to confirm security and compliance with the requirements and determine how the licensees are progressing. 

The agency is also evaluating the need for cybersecurity requirements for fuel cycle facilities, non-power reactors, independent spent fuel storage installations, and byproduct materials licensees.

The main theme of Macfarlane’s speech was the importance of preparing for the unknown, a new approach for the industry.

Practical steps might be to learn from the oil industry’s cooperative regional depots with equipment for spills, with stockpiles of equipment that could be used in accidents that are outside the realm of safety problems that nuclear plants were originally designed to meet. 

She is convinced that the industry is in good shape, with most plants well-managed and the regulator adapting well to the requirements of the next 25 years.

But pressure group The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) accused the NRC of complacency, saying it found safety equipment problems and security shortcomings in a dozen nuclear plants across the country, according to a report the group released in March. While none of the issues resulted in injury to plant workers or the public, UCS says the frequency of the incidents are the result of lapses by the NRC. 

Dave Lochbaum, director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project and author of the report, said in a statement. “But too often the agency does not live up to its potential, and we are still finding significant problems at nuclear plants that could trigger a serious accident.”

For UCS, the improvements at the NRC are notable, but not sufficient.

Certainly, the agency now seems more focused and effective than under the previous chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, whose three-year tenure was marked by bitter battles with colleagues and with Congress.

And there is strong evidence that nuclear plants in the United States have undergone a safety transformation over the last few years (see our article page 30), which the NRC has had an important role in encouraging.

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