Report from ANS Utility Working Conference – Part 2

Last week, I summarized Tom Kilgore, CEO of TVA’s speech at the opening plenary. Today, I want to write about a couple of the sessions I attended. The first, title “Current State of the Industry,” was right after the opening plenary with Bill Borchardt, Executive Director of Operations for the NRC, and Alex Marion, Vice President for Special Projects at NEI.

Let me place Mr. Borchardt in the organization at the NRC, for those of my readers that may be less familiar with some of the names within the commission. HE is essentially the CEO of the NRC. He reports directly to the five commissioners and has a fair amount of influence in when and how information is presented to them.

Both men gave short presentations and then we had a pretty extended Q&A period. I was far more interested in Mr. Borchardt’s portion so I will concentrate on that.

Action Matrix Summary Update

Most of my readers are probably familiar with the NRC’s Action Matrix Summary. This five column table is an attempt by the NRC to provide more clarity regarding the status of the plants relative to safe performance. Mr. Borchardt announced that the NRC was adding Security performance to the list of cornerstones that comprise the ranking. Although they’ve been inspecting and testing plant security pretty much since 9/11, the NRC was giving the utilities time to improve their performance before including it in this public metric.

Adding security issues to the matrix means that 12 plants move from column 1 – Licensee Response to columns 2 – Regulatory Response or 3 – Degraded Cornerstone. Mr Borchardt emphasized that nothing changes for these plants, they are not any less safe and the added oversight for security was already happening. This just makes the metric more transparent and allows all stake-holders to see more clearly what is going on with each of these plants.

NRC and Public Information

Next, he discussed some of the varying issues at different plants. He talked about the public interest varies greatly plant by plant. I can attest to the truth of this statement. I’ve gone to the NRC annual public meeting at Brunswick stations down the road from me and there were precisely 3 people that were not plant staff, including me. Whereas my friend, Meredith Angwin, attends the same meeting at Vermont Yankee and sees dozens of people not associate with the plant, most of whom are protesting something about VY’s operation.

This discrepancy, he explained, changes the way the NRC has to work with each licensee. Some questioned whether this was changing the enforcement of the regulation, which would clearly be problematic for everyone. Mr. Borchardt was vehement in his denial of that. He was talking more about the length of time reviews might take, the need to have more public meetings and/or the need to more clearly explain the regulatory process, all of these things take time and resources and draw out proceedings that for other licensees are quicker and easier.

Mr Borchardt was directing the problem back to the utilities. Where they have done a poor job of working with the local and state governments and have failed to make nuclear energy understandable, the local population is far less trusting and far more likely to slow-down and complicate proceedings. This is not the NRC’s job and they cannot ignore the concerns raised by local groups.

Taken in conjunction with Tom Kilgore’s admonitions regarding communicating about nuclear in the plenary – I found this to be a powerful message to the utilities to wake-up and figure out how to talk to their local stake-holders, including state and local governments.

Fukushima Response

A significant amount of time was also spent discussing the impacts of Fukushima on the NRC and the effects on the utilities.

  • A walkdown of all systems related to seismic performance. A walkdown is a process by which the plant operator “walks down” every system in the plant to assure themselves and the NRC that the CURRENT plant meets its Design Basis.
  • A re-evaluation of the seismic performance of the plant. This is asking the plant operators to look at current best guidance for seismic activity and evaluate the plants anticipated performance.
  • Two direct mitigation strategies. These are expected to be implemented within 5 years or two outages whichever comes earlier but completed by no later than 12/21/2016:
    • Hardened vents on all Mark 1 and 2 containments (Mark 1’s were required to do this after TMI, it was optional for Mark 2,)
    • More instrumentation of the Spent Fuel Pools
  • In addition, the NRC is looking to improve Emergency Procedures and is working on rulemaking to encourage the streamlining and clarification of EOP, SAMG, EDMG, and the rest of the alphabet soup of emergency procedures. Brownie points to anyone that can spell out the meaning of each acronym in the comments section.

Adequate Vendor Oversight

Finally, there was discussion about adequate oversight of vendors. Those that know me know that this is an area that I work in to try to improve those vendors programs to meet the industry needs. Mr. Borchardt took the industry to task regarding the need for the licensee to own the issues and not try to move responsibility to the vendors. Some in the room tried to push back on this with respect to huge construction projects, but he was having none of it. And I have to agree. If you’re going to build the plant, you have to own getting it done right. If that means hiring a large number of people to ensure it gets done, then hire the people and acknowledge the cost. But, get it right, or go home.

Waste Confidence Ruling

Of course, the issue of the recent court ruling on the waste confidence decision came up. Mr. Borchardt tried to minimize the real impact on the industry in that no license applications (either COL or renewals) were coming up in the very near term and he believes the issues will be resolved within a year or so. I have to disagree in that this simply adds to the public perception that we don’t know what to do with used nuclear fuel. There are a variety of options that should continue to be explored, only one of which would entail permanent storage of this fuel. But that’s the subject of an entirely new blog.

Looks like there will be at least a couple more installments out of the ANS-UWC. In the meantime, tell me what YOU thought about the conference!