US nuclear safety goes from strength to strength

12 April 2013

Contracts have been signed for the operation of two regional US response centres to manage emergency backup equipment, while newly released performance metrics for 2012 show US plants achieving good safety performances.

Salem-Hope Creek (PSEG)_200
PSEG's Salem and Hope Creek plants demonstrated safety systems when they weathered Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 (Image: PSEG)

The contract to operate regional response centres that will manage backup equipment and provide implementation services has been completed by the Strategic Alliance for FLEX Emergency Response (SAFER) team, which brings together Areva and the Pooled Equipment Inventory Co (PEICo). It is the latest stage in a process to ensure the ability to respond even to the most unlikely of situations across the entire US nuclear fleet.

The two regional centres, at Memphis, Tennessee, and Phoenix, Arizona, will be capable of dispatching a full set of emergency response equipment including portable safety equipment, radiation protection equipment, electrical generators and pumps to any affected site in the USA within 24 hours of an extreme event. The centres are intended to supplement an initiative announced in February 2012 to purchase additional on-site portable equipment at every nuclear facility in the USA under a response strategy known as FLEX.

The fleet-wide safety program supports US industry response to events at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi, which saw the plant's own emergency backup systems knocked out of action by the devastating tsunami that struck the Japanese coast in March 2011.

PEICo has provided a shared inventory service to the US nuclear industry for replacement equipment for over 30 years through its existing Pooled Inventory Management (PIM) support centre based in Memphis. PEICo president Mark Olson said that the SAFER initiative would bring together two industry leaders to strengthen still further the reliability and accessibility of off-site backup equipment.

Safety performance

However, latest performance metrics from US plants indicate that their safety performance remains exemplary, according to national nuclear industry organisation the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The metrics are compiled by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO), independent bodies dedicated to achieving the highest possible standards of nuclear safety at commercial nuclear power plants.

According to figures for 2012, the 62 unplanned shutdowns by US reactors during the year matched their record low set in 2011, while key backup safety systems concurrently met availability goals for over 93% of the time. With a median capability factor - a measure of the amount of time a plant is on line and producing electricity - of 91.2%, US plants neared record levels of efficiency set at 92% in 2005.

NEI senior vice president and chief nuclear officer Anthony Pietrangelo said that the performance indicators verified the strong safety culture in place in the nuclear energy industry, rooted in continuous learning, benchmarking, information sharing and training. "The dedicated professionals who operate and maintain our plants understand that it is imperative that we operate at exemplary levels of safety to maintain the far-reaching benefits of nuclear energy," he said.

Hurricane Sandy, which hit the eastern USA in October, provided additional evidence of plant reliability, the NEI noted. Of the 34 reactors in the hurricane's path, 24 continued to operate safely and generate electricity throughout the event. Seven reactors were already in scheduled outages at the time for refuelling or inspection, and three shut down, as designed, because of storm conditions or grid disturbances.

The safety performance data was published days after controversial comments by former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko, who suggested that in his opinion the safety of all of the USA's 104 operating nuclear reactors was compromised. In comments made at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington and reported in the New York Times, Jaczko likened measures taken by the industry to address safety issues to "continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid."

In direct response to Jaczko's comments, NEI CEO Marv Fertel pointed to the significance of the response strategies including FLEX. "US nuclear energy facilities are operating safely. That was the case prior to Greg Jaczko’s tenure as Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman. It was the case during his tenure as NRC chairman, as acknowledged by the NRC’s special Fukushima response task force and evidenced by a multitude of safety and performance indicators. It is still the case today, particularly as every US nuclear energy facility adds yet another layer of safety by implementing lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident," he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News