Activist Toolkit

Interested in nuclear power safety and technology, but confused by the jargon? Our advocate-oriented “Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit” series is just for you.


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Nuclear Autopsies

, director, Nuclear Safety Project

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #59

Medical professionals diagnose the health of their patients using non-destructive techniques (keeping with the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm) like taking temperatures and pulses and, when necessary, peering inside bodies using X-rays and Cat-scans.

Medical coroners, on the other hand, can use destructive techniques on persons when determining the causes of their deaths. Chest cavities and skulls are cut open to enable organs to be assessed. Tissue samples may be cut from bodies for microscopic examinations.

Insights gained during autopsies supplement the information gathered from treatments and examinations of living patients to broaden the knowledge of human health, allowing medical professionals and researchers to make health care advances.

Nuclear autopsies have been undertaken, and more are planned, for similar purposes—to supplement information gathered during tests and inspections conducted during reactor operation and support technological advances.

For example, the NRC outlined “harvesting” (their use, my re-use) several components during the decommissioning of permanently shut down nuclear power reactors.

Samples from the Zorita nuclear plant

Samples from the baffle plate and core barrel were harvested from the José Cabrera Nuclear Power Station (also known as the Zorita nuclear plant) in Spain as part of the Zorita Internals Research Project.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. (click to enlarge)  (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Zorita was a pressurized water reactor similar to about two-thirds of the reactors currently operating in the United States. The baffle plate and core barrel formed a metal enclosure around the nuclear fuel within the reactor pressure vessel. They function to direct cooling water flow through the reactor core. Metal specimens attached to the core barrel and other internal components are periodically removed during refueling outages over the reactor’s lifetime for laboratory analysis of radiation effects.

The Zorita samples supplement those insights. Among other things, the results from the examinations will factor into the NRC’s decision-making about subsequent license renewal (SLR)—operating reactors beyond 60 years.

Additionally, there are plans to for samples from concrete structures surrounding the reactor pressure vessel at Zorita to be harvested. Previous concrete samples have been harvested from the containment building at Crystal River 3, from the shield building at Davis-Besse, and from the auxiliary building at Seabrook. The  samples at Zorita will come from concrete structures within the containment building and closer to the high temperature and high radiation emitted from the reactor pressure vessel.

Fig.. 2. (click to enlarge)

Fig.. 2. (click to enlarge) (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Samples from the Zion nuclear plant

There are plans to harvest neutron absorber materials from the spent fuel pool at the Zion nuclear plant in Illinois, which permanently shut down a decade ago.

Fig. 3. (click to enlarge)

Fig. 3. (click to enlarge) (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Spent fuel pools originally relied on geometry to prevent a nuclear chain reaction—the fuel assemblies in the storage racks were far enough apart to preclude a critical mass from being formed. When reprocessing was eliminated and the repository delayed, spent fuel pools were re-racked to store more fuel assemblies. The fuel assemblies within storage racks are typically closer together than when they are in the reactor core.

To guard against nuclear chain reactions, the walls of the storage racks contain neutron absorbing material. The objective of this material is to “soak” up neutrons emitted by the decay of unstable radioactive byproducts in the nuclear fuel and thus prevent them from interacting with uranium and plutonium atoms to cause fissions. But experience with neutron absorbing materials has not been stellar. There were fabrication problems, degradation problems, leaching problems, analytical problems, and expansion problems to list some of the many problems.

The Zion harvests may complement the humongous trial and error database.

Electrical cables will be harvested from both the Zion nuclear plant in Illinois and Crystal River 3 in Florida. Cables consist of metal wires that carry electricity throughout the nuclear plant wrapped in insulating material that guards against the electricity touching things along the way. The focus is on the cable insulation because it tends to age (degrade) faster at higher temperatures.

Fig. 4. (click to enlarge)

Fig. 4. (click to enlarge)  (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Bottom Line

Harvesting of materials to enable fuller insights from their destructive examinations (i.e., nuclear autopsies) has not waited until nuclear power reactors have permanently shut down. As parts have worn out and been replaced (e.g., steam generators, reactor vessel heads, eroded pipes, etc.), specimens have been harvested and analyzed.

The nuclear industry and the NRC seek to expand those insights by harvesting materials from previously un-examined plant areas. These collections permit real data to replace positions established by extrapolating from other real data and/or by computer analyses. Hopefully, the real data reinforces previous positions. Either way, the real data supports better decision-making in the future.

Nuclear autopsies yield insights that cannot be obtained by other means.

 

The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.

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Enhancing NRC Public Meetings

, director, Nuclear Safety Project

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #58

By memo dated January 29, 2015, a task group of twenty individuals within the NRC submitted its report to the agency’s Executive Director for Operations on enhancing public meetings. The task group was created in response to written direction dated March 5, 2014, (ADAMS ML14070A070, but not publicly available in ADAMS) from the NRC Chairman. The task group made five recommendations to enhance public meetings conducted by the NRC: Read more >

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Nuclear Columbine

, director, Nuclear Safety Project

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #57

From Charles Whitman killing 16 people with shots fired from a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus on August 1, 1966, to two students killing 13 people by gunfire at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, to a gunmen killing 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, to a young man fatally shooting 20 children and 6 staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, and many other incidents, school shootings have tragically claimed too many innocent lives and given too many families irreplaceable, unforgettable losses.

The United States could have reacted to Whitman’s rampage by closing all public and private schools. That action would have absolutely prevented school shootings and their tragic consequences.

Instead, the United States chose to sustain the benefits from formal education while pursuing measures intended to make schools as safe as possible. While school shootings have continued, I recall the comments made by William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, after Columbine. Bennett observed that while you could count the times the safety measures failed, you could not count the times they succeeded in averting tragedies. Rather than suggesting that occasional school shootings were “acceptable losses,” Bennett emphasized the vital role for safety and security in our educational system.

This education situation is similar to our longstanding position on nuclear power. Nuclear power became one of UCS’s focus areas shortly after the organization was formed in May 1969. Nuclear power provides certain benefits by producing large amounts of energy from a relatively small environmental footprint. But the consequences from nuclear mis-steps can be extremely costly. UCS has consistently focused on identifying nuclear power plant safety shortcomings and advocating their solutions. The nuclear plant accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) has not altered that focus.

Bottom Line

One of two things would need to happen to move UCS into adopting either a pro-nuclear power or an anti-nuclear power position.

First, we could become unable to find nuclear power plant safety shortcomings if all operating reactors complied with applicable regulations or if all operating reactors were inherently safe. With only benefits to be captured and no costly consequences to be experienced, nuclear power could be embraced by UCS.

Second, we could become unable to find appropriate solutions for nuclear power plant safety shortcomings. With benefits to be derived only at undue risk of costly consequences, nuclear power would likely be opposed by UCS.

Until then, UCS will continue looking for nuclear safety problems and calling for their resolutions.

 

The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.

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All Over the Nuclear Safety Map

, director, Nuclear Safety Project

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #56

In 2007, UCS launched the Nuclear Power Information Tracker, an interactive web feature. The default screen showed a map of the continental United States with icons showing the locations of the commercial nuclear power reactors. Running the cursor over an icon prompted a pop-up box with the reactor’s name, some basic information, and a link to a webpage for that reactor with additional details as well as UCS reports about that reactor. Read more >

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Nuclear Near-Misses

, director, Nuclear Safety Project

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #55

UCS launched a series of annual reports on the NRC and nuclear power plant safety in 2011. The reports share a common template for what is covered and how it is presented. The reports have something else in common—unanticipated controversies inside and outside UCS regarding our decision to use “near miss” to describe the events summarized in Chapter 2 of the reports. Read more >

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