Power Engineering

Nuclear Safety is Making Headlines

By Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor

Nuclear power safety is still making news headlines as Japan’s crisis continues to unfold. Yes, the situation there is very serious and a review of nuclear power plants is the next move to make, as is being done in the United States.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission named a task force to conduct a near-term review to indentify topics for a longer review. At the time of publication, the short-term review was not yet complete. NRC said a written report was expected to be made public 90 days after the start of the review, which was in April. The task force is made up of senior NRC managers and staff who will identify potential near-term actions that affect U.S. power reactors, including their spent fuel pools. Areas to be reviewed include loss of all AC power for a reactor, external events that could lead to a prolonged loss of cooling, plant capabilities for preventing or dealing with such circumstances and emergency preparedness.

Early last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) dedicated the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), a research facility DOE said will accelerate the advancement of nuclear reactor technology. Researchers will use “supercomputers” to study the performance of light water reactors and also develop models to help accelerate upgrades to the existing U.S. nuclear power fleet.

The facility, located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, brings together four national labs, three industry partners and three universities in an effort to develop tools that will advance new generations of nuclear reactors and safely extend the life and reliability of existing plants.

“Work done at this facility will help make our fleet of reactors even safer and more efficient while creating jobs, fueling the economy and saving consumers money on their utility bills,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

DOE also announced that CASL had completed its first “virtual reactor.” The Department said that this software will provide improved insight into reactor operations, help the industry reduce capital and operating costs, minimize nuclear waste volume, safely extend the lifetime of the current nuclear fleet and develop new materials for next-generation reactors.

With these recent efforts it seems that the needed organizations in the U.S. are addressing many of the public’s concerns about the safety of nuclear power generation. But one lawmaker did not seem to agree. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in early April introduced legislation known as the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011 “to impose a moratorium on all pending NRC licenses and re-licenses in light of the need to fully understand the safety risks and include remedies into our own regulations.” The NRC, on April 1, had already established its task force and was moving forward with its review to develop recommendations for it to consider regarding immediate enhancements at U.S. reactors and possible changes to NRC regulations, inspection procedures and licensing processes.

Meanwhile in Europe, the European Commission is establishing a stress test review of Europe’s 143 reactors to make sure the plants are able to continue to operate safely. Christian Taillebois, spokesperson for the European Nuclear Society, said that once the stress test criteria is established it should be implemented at every plant as soon as possible. He said each European Union member state will decide whether the plant should be shut down, improved and so on.

“If the regulatory body says the plant needs work, we (nuclear industry) will make all necessary improvements,” he said.

Another question focuses on the need for a universal regulatory regime for reactors that are subject to any sort of natural disasters.

With over 440 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries, there are different cultures and work environments that, among other things, must be taken into consideration when it comes to deciding whether to have a “global nuclear regulator.”

Organizations already are established that do look over nuclear issues globally, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Both have followed the situation in Japan closely to get timely information out, not only to the public, but to the entities involved in nuclear power generation as well.

“It is not possible to think about building, operating or dismantling a nuclear power plant without taking into account the recent accident and we did that after Three Mile Island in the U.S.,” said Laurent Stricker, WANO Chairman. “But clearly not enough.”

The international nuclear power community will continue to take in these “lessons learned” as the events in Japan unfold to assure that current designs, standards and operating approaches are capable of dealing with issues such as those confronting Fukushima Daiichi.

“We have to gather all CEOs of the nuclear industry and utilities in order to share our views and to move forward to a stronger commitment and obligation to follow the improvements we see,” said Stricker.

The nuclear power industry is putting its best foot forward and the NRC is doing what is needed to ensure that the existing and planned reactors will provide energy to this country in a safe manner.

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