The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued safety orders to the nuclear industry that are the first of this scope since orders issued following the Sept. 11 attacks. The orders require all nuclear reactors to take significant steps to fulfill safety requirements in the event of a “beyond-design-basis natural phenomena” and are based off of NRC’s findings in their studies of the that occurred on March 11, 2011.
On March 12, 2012, the NRC issued two immediately effective orders that pertain to all of the county’s nuclear reactors. It also issued a third order to all power reactor companies operating boiling water reactors. Entergy’s in Buchanan has two pressurized water reactors and so it is only subject to the first two NRC orders.*
“It is a big deal and there was a great deal of deliberation by NRC staff and commission itself,” said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. “This is not something the NRC does lightly we have variety of regulatory tools at our disposal and one of those are orders…There has been nothing along these lines since Sept. 11.”
In summary, the orders require nuclear plants to develop strategies, implement plans, and secure equipment to deal with possible loss of all back up power that ensures they can monitor the temperature of the spent fuel pools and to have reliable, hardened vents in the containments. (Read the full orders at the end of this article).
The NRC will prepare plans to help guide implementation of the technical requirements of the orders by August 2012. Entergy and all other nuclear plants (licensees) will then be required to submit an integrated plan, including a description of how compliance with the orders will be achieved, to the NRC by Feb. 28, 2013.
After reviewing the licensees’ plans, the NRC plans to issue facility-specific orders, as necessary, imposing license conditions that address the requirements of the orders. Each licensee will be required to be in full compliance within two refueling outages after submittal of its integrated plan, or by December 31, 2016, whichever comes first.
“Entergy since Fukushima like adding additional layers of diesel-powered equipment and flood protection. We will comply fully with these new NRC rules to make additional enhancements to the plant,” said Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi.
The nuclear industry was aware these orders were forthcoming and “some may have already acted on that,” Sheehan said. “We will know that in their response and…in their integrated plan. We’re holding meetings on a fairly frequent basis with plant owners to understand where they are on responding to these.
The NRC also issued a request for information from nuclear reactor licensees on March 12. This request requires licensees to re-evaluate seismic and flooding hazards, perform seismic and flooding walkdowns to identify and address conditions; assess how current communications systems would work under conditions of prolonged blackout; perform a staffing study to determine staff needs during the occasion of a multi-unit event. Licensees have various timeframes to respond to this requested information.
The following is a more detailed summary of each of the NRC’s post-Fukushima orders as they pertain to Entergy, the owner of Indian Point:
Entergy is ordered to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of beyond-design-basis natural phenomena that address both multiunit events and reasonable protection of equipment identified to implement such strategies.
1. Develop strategies to deal with beyond-design-basis external events that would result in simultaneous loss of all back up ac power and loss of normal access to the ultimate heat sink (in Indian Point’s case, the heat sink is the Hudson River, their water source).
Once developed and implemented, these strategies will provide the necessary capabilities to supplement those of the permanent structures systems and components that could possibly become unavailable following beyond-design-basis external events. They will also enhance the safety and preparedness capabilities established and written into code following September 11, 2001.
Entergy is also required to increase its capability to implement multiple strategies at the same time at multiple units on site.
The NRC is also requiring Entergy to develop strategies and add ways to maintain or restore core cooling, containment and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities in order to improve the defense in depth of licensed nuclear power reactors.
The order also requires that the equipment needed to implement the strategies be reasonably protected.
2. NRC ordered Entergy (and all other nuclear reactor licensees) to install enhanced and reliable spent fuel pool (SFP) instrumentation (the equipment and practices they use to measure water temperatures). The NRC statement reads:
“During the events at Fukushima, responders were without reliable instrumentation to determine the water level in the SFP. This caused concerns that the pool may have boiled dry, resulting in fuel damage, but in fact the spent fuel had remained covered at all times.
Fukushima demonstrated that confusion and misapplication of resources may result from beyond-design-basis external events when adequate instrumentation is not available. The instrumentation installed at U.S. nuclear power plants is typically only for a narrow range of SFP level and, therefore, only capable of monitoring normal and slightly off-normal conditions in the pool. Although the likelihood of a catastrophic event affecting U.S. nuclear power plants and their associated SFPs remains very low, beyond-design-basis external events could challenge the ability of existing SFP instrumentation to provide emergency responders with reliable information on the condition of SFPs. Reliable and available indication is essential to ensure that plant personnel can effectively prioritize emergency actions.”
3. The third requirement does not apply to Entergy's IPEC. It only applies to nuclear reactor licensees with boiling water reactor Mark 1 and Mark II containments.
Licensees are ordered to have reliable, hardened vents in the containments.
“At Fukushima, limitations in time and the unpredictable conditions associated with the accident significantly challenged the attempts by responders to preclude core damage and containment failure. In particular, the operators were unable to successfully operate the containment venting system. The inability to reduce containment pressure inhibited efforts to cool the reactor core. Had additional backup or alternate sources of power been available to operate the containment venting system remotely, or had certain valves been more accessible to allow manual operation, the operators at Fukushima might have been able to depressurize the containment earlier. This, in turn, could have allowed operators to implement strategies using low-pressure water sources. Thus, the events at Fukushima demonstrate that reliable hardened vents at BWR facilities with Mark I and Mark II containment designs are important to maintain core and containment cooling.”
Mitigation strategies and reliable, hardened vents are necessary to ensure the protection of public health and safety and are appropriate responses to the insights from the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident.
“The NRC believes that continued operation under existing regulations does not pose an imminent threat to public health and safety but that the events at Fukushima highlighted the need for these additional capabilities to mitigate the effects of beyond-design-basis external events.”
*Editor's Note: The article has been changed from its original version to reflect that the NRC's third order does not apply to Indian Point Energy Center. We regret the error.
Read more about Indian Point here.