Skip to main content

The State-of-Play of Nuclear Safety After Fukushima

If anything set the table for the American nuclear industry’s response to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, it was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. After that event, the security of all essential infrastructure was rethought. For all kinds of power plants, an important issue was keeping them functional after a devastating attack.

What happened at Fukushima was a devastating attack, albeit one without human agency. Because of the 2001 terrorist attack, the American industry was in many ways much better prepared for such an episode than the Japanese industry; still, Fukushima presented new lessons to be learned and new ways to enhance safety. The first lesson: never let a disaster go to waste. It has a lot to teach you.

The industry and the NRC are in broad agreement on the high-priority actions that should be taken at America's reactors. The industry's Fukushima response priority has been to identify those activities that provide maximum tangible safety benefits in the shortest time and implement them first.

That’s Anthony Pietrangelo, NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, and he gets right to plant and public safety – “provide maximum tangible safety benefits in the shortest time.” The earthquake in Japan was unpredicted, but the workers at Fukushima Daiichi were already working to bring the reactors offline when the tsunami hit. That swept away the emergency generators and other emergency equipment.

The greatest safety improvement to protect against extreme events, regardless of their cause, comes from the FLEX response strategy that the industry began implementing last year. The heart of this effort is adding more portable, backup safety equipment at each reactor. More than 1,500 pieces of equipment have been acquired or ordered, including portable generators, diesel-driven pumps and satellite phones. The additional portable equipment will provide power and water to maintain key safety functions in the absence of AC power and heat transfer capability from permanently installed safety systems. These functions are reactor core cooling, used fuel pool cooling and containment integrity.

We may say, though, that the Fukushima workers didn’t expect emergency gear to wash away. Though the FLEX equipment is stowed at the facilities in order to prevent being destroyed, what if it were anyway? How do the plant workers deal with that?

In addition to new equipment being placed at all U.S. reactors, the industry is developing regional response centers in Memphis and Phoenix that will serve as dispatch points for additional equipment and resources. The regional response centers will be capable of delivering another full set of portable safety equipment, radiation protection equipment, electrical generators, pumps and other emergency response equipment to an affected site within 24 hours after an extreme event.

Of course, the world came together to offer help to the Japanese as needed and requested. Why not formalize that effort to respond to emergencies here and internationally?

In addition, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations has upgraded its emergency response center, and the facility is operational. This center will facilitate the sharing of equipment and technical expertise whenever and wherever it is needed. Thus, between the equipment available via the regional response centers and the equipment purchased by each site, the industry will have significantly enhanced its capability to assist any site in an emergency.

INPO is the right venue for this because it already maintains a database of parts available at the various facilities.

Pietrangelo also addresses what the industry and NRC have done to deal with the most frightening aspect of a nuclear energy accident, the potential release of radiation. It is potential rather than inevitable; the goal is to keep it in the former category. The best answer is to install a filtering option well suited to the nature of each facility and the potential threats it faces, but the NRC and regulators in general tend to prefer singular solutions.

One prominent area of industry/NRC interactions of late is the NRC staff recommendation for external, filtered containment vents for boiling water reactors with Mark I and II containments. The Electric Power Research Institute concluded after intensive analysis that filtered vents aren't necessarily the most effective way to filter potential radioactive releases from fuel damage. The industry believes the optimal filtration method should be determined on a plant-specific basis. The NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards shares that view. The five-member Commission ultimately will decide the future course of action in this area.

If it were just the industry wanting this flexibility, one might conclude that it smells cynically of an industry wanting to go cheap, safety be damned. But no: the approach is probably not, in aggregate, the least expensive way to address filtering, but it acknowledges that a large country provides a range of potential disaster scenarios that are not the same from one to another region. That’s one thing – well, two things. More importantly, other regulatory bodies and watchdogs believe it is the correct approach, too. I’m not sure this quite rises to the level of a contention. We’ll see how it goes.

Pietrangelo makes a simple, strong case for nuclear energy.

Because the long-term fundamentals show a continued, if not growing, need for nuclear energy around the globe, it is paramount that existing facilities are operated safely even as advanced-design reactors are brought to market in the years ahead. Innovation, knowledge transfer, training, and strong safety cultures are among the elements that will define the future ability of nuclear energy technologies to help meet societal needs.

There are a lot of moving parts to this piece, written for Power Engineering. I’ve focused on some key safety points here, but there’s more, including a section on industrial preparedness and another on regulation. The whole thing is worth a careful read if you’re interested in the state of play of post-Fukushima safety planning.

For a little more background, here is NEI’s video on FLEX:

A detailed overview of the nuclear industry's FLEX approach to enhancing safety post Fukushima.


Anonymous said…


Having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future.

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…