NRC allows nuclear plants to propose alternatives to its new seismic safety assessment

Vermont Yankee cooling tower collapse, 2007

On Friday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) wrapped up a two-week long inspection of Vermont Yankee’s emergency systems.The biennial inspection is meant to target any holes in the nuclear plant’s emergency preparedness program. Regulators looked at how the facility has responded to emergencies in the past, analyzed staffing levels and tested alarm systems.

While federal inspectors have 45 days to issue a report of their findings, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said that a preliminary review of their inspection did not unearth “any significant issues.”

This inspection comes after the NRC issued a new guidance on Sept. 4 for assessing seismic hazards in nuclear facilities across the country. The “supplemental guidance,” as the NRC puts it, is based on recommendations made by a high-level federal task force, which was formed in the wake of the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi disaster to review NRC regulations and processes to identify areas of improvement.

The new guidance is not mandatory, and a leading nuclear expert doesn’t think it goes far enough to protect the public.

Earlier this summer, NRC regulators began inspections with nuclear plant personnel, called “walkdowns,” where personnel and inspectors looked for readily identifiable flood and seismic hazards. But the new guidance, said Entergy spokesman Rob Williams, would require a further-reaching scientific analysis of a nuclear plant’s ability to stand up to an earthquake.

“The seismic evaluation is about the math involved and how the plants are analyzed,” said Williams.

NRC is allowing nuclear facilities to weigh in on the new regulatory measure until Oct. 10, and facilities can propose their own methodologies for how their plants should be inspected for failures.

When Sheehan was asked about nuclear operators preparing their own guidelines, he said NRC could veto their proposals.

“We could deem that methodology and the result unacceptable,” he said. “There is that risk on the part of a company.”

But, he said, most plants appear to be in favor of the assessment process. “Most of the plants have indicated that they plan to adhere to this guidance,” he said.

Williams, however, did not indicate whether Vermont Yankee would conform to the federally proposed guidance.

“We’re going to be reviewing that guidance with the rest of the industry and responding as a group within the timeframe they expect,” he said.

Not enough?

Burlington’s Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and one of the world’s leading authorities on nuclear safety, said the new guidance doesn’t go far enough to ensure citizen well-being.

“They nibble at the edges of the problem,” Gundersen about NRC’s new guidance. “You’re not going to find the significant changes that really need to be implemented because the plants can’t afford to implement them. You can’t make the changes in an (old) operating plant, and the NRC knows that, so they’re going to try to go around the margin.”

One of the central issues with the U.S. nuclear industry, as Gundersen views it, is that low-probability, high-consequence natural events have threatened and, in the case of Fukushima, caused nuclear disaster. As examples of close calls, he pointed to the earthquake in Virginia near the North Anna Power Station and the floods near the Fort Calhoun Power Plant in Nebraska that pushed but didn’t exceed the boundaries of those plants.

He said the guidance, as proposed, might lead to slight structural improvements but wouldn’t bring about the replacement of 30- to 40-year-old plants, which he considers necessary to prevent nuclear disasters.

One of the central issues with the U.S. nuclear industry, as Gundersen views it, is that low-probability, high-consequence natural events have threatened and, in the case of Fukushima, caused nuclear disaster. As examples of close calls, he pointed to the earthquake in Virginia near the North Anna Power Station and the floods near the Fort Calhoun Power Plant in Nebraska that pushed but didn’t exceed the boundaries of those plants.

“If you look at what we’ve learned in the past five years, we’ve learned that Mother Nature is unpredictable and our predictions have been wrong four times,” said Gundersen.

John Ebel, director of Boston College’s geophysics laboratory Weston Observatory, said it’s very difficult to predict earthquakes in New England because of the short historical record that is available. The largest quake on record in New England hit Cape Ann, Mass., in 1755 and came in at around 6.0 on the Richter scale.

Weston Observatory records show that in 2002 there was a magnitude 5.1 earthquake in New York across Lake Champlain from Addison County, and in 2010 there was a magnitude 5.0 quake just northwest of Montreal.

Despite the seismic unknown of New England’s future, Ebel maintained, “Engineers can design and build structures that can survive even the strongest earthquake shakes.”

But, said Gundersen, the finances aren’t in favor of replacing the country’s aging nuclear plants.

“It does boil down to money,” he said. “A nuclear plant can be safe or it can be competitively priced, but it can’t be competitively priced and safe from these low-probability events.”

The fiscal element of the nuclear equation, said Gundersen, is the reason the industry has so much sway over regulatory policy, as it does over the guidance just issued by the NRC.

“That’s typical,” said Gundersen of the non-mandatory guidance. “That’s the industry influence, where if (federal policy) gets too expensive we won’t hold you to it.”

“Look at each one in a vacuum”

In March, Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller wrote to William Dean, NRC regional administrator, to ask why a string of human performance errors at Vermont Yankee didn’t require additional oversight from the NRC. Such errors led to the loss of shutdown cooling and some malfunctioning equipment.

Dean responded to Miller, writing that all of these errors were labeled “green,” which means they have ”very low safety significance.” Since none of the findings exceeded the NRC’s “green” threshold, Dean found no reason for additional oversight.

Miller wrote to Dean again in August about similar human performance-related errors, pointing to eight other issues that arose since her March letter. Such incidents included an absent risk analysis, a missing flood seal and a poorly installed condenser.

“My concern is that such incidents, while perhaps unremarkable in isolation, together may raise questions regarding the training and oversight exercised by the operator of the plant,” wrote Miller.

Gundersen has similar concerns.

“These incidents lead me to believe that either the procedures suck, the staff is too young or there’s inadequate training — none of which does the NRC want to address,” he said. “They prefer to look at each incident in a vacuum.”

“It’s not for me to say whether their oversight should be more holistic or less holistic … It’s the NRC’s jurisdiction and oversight to exercise, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions. In fact, I think we should ask even more questions.

Elizabeth Miller, Public Service Department commissioner

When Miller was asked about the NRC’s method of analyzing isolated instances, she was frank.

“That’s just how NRC does everything,” she said. “It’s not for me to say whether their oversight should be more holistic or less holistic … It’s the NRC’s jurisdiction and oversight to exercise, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions. In fact, I think we should ask even more questions. That’s the spirit behind the first letter way back in March and the spirit behind the second letter.”

On Sept. 14, Dean wrote back to Miller. While he said that the incidents didn’t warrant increased NRC oversight, he did say that he welcomed a state engineer to join NRC inspectors during an upcoming inspection.

“We plan to conduct a PI&R (Problem Identification and Resolution) follow-up inspection in October 2012 focused on corrective actions to prevent human errors when taking equipment out of service in response to the loss of shutdown cooling in October 2011, and the trip of the ‘A’ emergency diesel generator fuel rack in November 2011.”

When Sheehan was asked about the frequency of the PI&R inspections, he said they should be conducted biennially. The last inspection of this nature, which he referenced, occurred in 2009.

“At that time, we found (Entergy’s) corrective actions addressed the identified causes of problems and were typically implemented in a timely manner,” wrote Sheehan in an email about the last PI&R.

Miller said she welcomes the October inspection, and appreciates Dean’s more thorough response to her concerns.

“I thought that the letter they sent this time, as opposed to last time, was more specific,” she said. “But, overall, my message to Bill Dean was that we do view (our) Department’s role, in part, to review these documents, raise questions when they come up and ask NRC for a response. So he should anticipate that.

“If there are further incidents with the plant, we’ll have further questions.”

 


Andrew Stein

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13 Comments on "NRC allows nuclear plants to propose alternatives to its new seismic safety assessment"

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Birgit Johanson
3 years 10 months ago
On the West Coast in particular, tsunami is a threat. There are many articles and websites describing the risks. There is a new study showing that 23 nuclear plants worldwide are at substantial risk from tsunamis. NOAA has a page about East Coast Tsunami Threat at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/ilm/stormready/tsunami/player.html Earthquakes alone are almost never a sole cause or event. Flooding, isolation due to weather and other events, etc. lead to increased risk of meltdown. A study or request that asks the wrong questions is not going to prevent a disaster. We need a policy that includes public input and an enlightened approach… Read more »
Howard Shaffer
3 years 10 months ago
When Congress chose nuclear power for electric power generation, it had been made perfectly clear that there was the possibility of a very rare, but severe accident – a meltdown with significant release. All practical measures would be taken to prevent such an accident, and if it happened, to deal with the consequences. Congress made this choice because they wanted a replacement for coal. They knew how bad coal was, in environmental impact, and health consequences. Mining and pollution control have improved in the past 50 years, so that the EPA now estimates ONLY 30,000 people die early each year… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 10 months ago

It always fascinates me that Howard Shaffer loves to quote Marie Curie and to deny that radiation causes cancer. Madame Curie died of cancer.

Bob Stannard
3 years 10 months ago

Knowing that Mr. Shaffer is a good Christian, it’s practically unfathomable to hear him say that one’s life would only be shortened by a few years by cancer.

Pardon me if that sounds a little cold.

Howard Shaffer
3 years 9 months ago
Marie Curie lived long enough to get cancer some way, since it is a disease of old age, in the main. One quarter of us will die from it, now. ( I’ve already been operated on for it, in 2002.) A hundred years ago most people didn’t live long enough to die from it. Opponents love to cite Madme Curie’s death from cancer without giving her age. Based on what we know now, if she had given herself a very high dose of radiation in her research, she would have died from cancer sooner. The comment is of the group,… Read more »
Bob Stannard
3 years 9 months ago

And therein, Howard, lies the beauty of radiation leaks from nuclear power. One can never really pinpoint how the patient died, thus clearing the way to make more.

Of course, that same logic was used by the cigarette companies. Just because someone smokes and dies of lung cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that they died from smoking. They might’ve died from radiation from nuclear power.

Tell it to the children.

Howard Shaffer
3 years 9 months ago
Mr Stannard et al, It’s all in the science. Proper studies with control groups proved the causitive link between smoking and lung cancer. Not surprising that this is the case, since lungs were not made to inhale smoke. Studies with control groups prove which levels of radiation are safe, which provide a “vaccination effec.t”, and which are harmful This is not surprising since radiation is a part of the natural environment, and always has been. The sun’s energy is transmitted by radiation from a complex nuclear reaction. Those who say you can’t see radiaton are wrong, because we can see… Read more »
Bob Stannard
3 years 9 months ago

OK, Howard, so radiation is cumulative. it’s in the environment. It comes from the sun. There is no safe level of radiation, because it’s cumulative.

So since there appears to be plenty of radiation occurring naturally to cause some damage to humans then the answer to reducing cancer rates from radiation is to promote an unecessiary technology that creates more radiation?

Help to understand that.

John Greenberg
3 years 9 months ago
Howard Shaffer and I have had this discussion before, and Bob Stannard has done a good job of calling him out on his misleading statements about radiation. Still, for the benefit of readers who have less experience considering these matters, I think it’s important to state in some detail just how preposterous his claim is, beyond my rather snarky (and slightly incorrect as it turns out) comment from a few days ago. These comments concern the first set of exchanges between Shaffer and Bob. First, it should be noted that virtually no one believes that the best or only alternative… Read more »
Howard Shaffer
3 years 9 months ago
What I apparently didn’t get through is that the Berkley findings prove that the effects of low level ionizing radiation are NOT cumulative. This is similar to my saying that my arm has been punctured many times for blood samples, vaccinations, and transfusions, but is 100% healed. There is no trace of the punctures. These findings undermine one of the main arguments against using nuclear power, so its not surprising that they are not welcomed. I’ll be happy to give up on nuclear power when there is a risk free, environmental impact free, electric power source that can keep our… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 9 months ago
I’m not a health physicist, so I’m willing to be corrected, but I think Howard Shaffer is a bit off in his remarks on the new Berkeley study. I’m make 2 points on this theme: First, the Berkeley study, at least according to the write-up I read from the lab — http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2011/12/20/low-dose-radiation/ — doesn’t PROVE much of anything. Rather, it SUGGESTS that by creating fewer but more intense radiation induced foci (RIF), the DNA repairs itself better than the linear hypothesis would have suggested, and the authors “hypothesize” that “multiple repair activity increases the risks of broken DNA strands being… Read more »
Howard Shaffer
3 years 9 months ago
I hope those who are saying Vermont does not get any power from Vermont Yankee read you description. As long as an entity is taking power from the grid, they are being supported by all those supplying it. Paying is different. See my guest post. http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2012/08/wheres-magic-switch-guest-post-by.html#.UEZ9h5hfWec I learned about grid operations as Startup Engineer on the then worlds largest pumped storage project. So ISO is preparing for 20% of the grid to be renewables-wind and solar. With what aare they preapring? If its like every place else, its quidk start natural gas turbines (jet engines with a generator) Ask bill… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 9 months ago
Two replies to Howard Shaffer: 1) “I hope those who are saying Vermont does not get any power from Vermont Yankee read you[sic] description.” Do you? Really? Then tell that to Entergy’s lawyers, who just filed a lawsuit claiming that Vermont’s new tax violates the commerce clause because it imposes the cost on out-of-state ratepayers, while Vermonters are not buying any VY power. Vermont utilities no longer buy power from VY under contract, that is, directly, but they DO buy market power, so they purchase small amounts of VY power through the ISO-NE grid, just like out-of-state utilities. (VY is… Read more »
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