Nuclear Safety
in the News


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Nukes were back in the news in 2013. Behind the headlines, security and safety were in the subtext as governments grappled with Iran’s intentions and the U.S. industry mapped out its post-Fukushima future. As these extremes played out, some in the national media began to wonder what happened to the predicted nuclear renaissance that was supposed to have revitalized the industry by now.

This look at five of the biggest stories in nuclear safety and security from 2013 reveal the complexities of the nuclear industry in a changing world.

Government Shutdown

October’s 16-day shutdown of the U.S. government had multiple effects on the nation’s nuclear weapons and energy facility. According to a November report from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the shutdown cost the National Nuclear Safety Administration and the Department of Energy several weeks of progress and productivity as weapons labs and plants were shifted into “safe standby” condition. Much of the impact was felt after the closures, when workers spent an additional week getting things running again. Research at federal science and engineering-related agencies was put on hold and workforce furloughs sidelined most activities of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and NASA – including four of the five Nobel Prize winners currently working in government laboratories. The report also blamed the shutdown for 18,000 total employee furlough days at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). However the NRC’s two to four on-site independent safety inspectors were kept on the job as essential staff.

U.S. nuclear industry safety accident rate.
Source: NEI.org

Hat TIP to Safety Innovators

The latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report noted the nuclear industry’s best workplace accident safety record ever, with 0.05 safety-related accidents per 200,000 worker hours. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) pointed out in response, “It is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector, leisure and hospitality industries, and the financial sector.” As part of its annual celebration of safety, the NEI issued its Top Industry Practice (TIP) awards to industry leaders in safety and process improvements. Collecting the grant prize, the B. Ralph Sylvia Best of the Best Award, was the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group. The NEI said the award honored employees at CENG’s Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland for an innovative welding process that improves the efficiency and safety of replacing pressurizer components.

Five Up, Five Down

Even as the first new reactor projects in 30 years reached key milestones toward completion, the first four nuclear plants since 1998 were shuttered and at least one other was scheduled for closure as the twin tolls of aging equipment and soft markets set in. Different factors contributed to the closures, but the industry is closely studying the downfall of Wisconsin’s high-producing Kewaunee plant as the possible canary in the coal mine indicating future economics-driven closures of otherwise healthy plants.

On the other side of the coin, the five new reactors currently being built, in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, reached some important goals during the year. Expected to go on line between 2014 and 2018, the new plants will deliver electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers.

Fukushima’s Future

In early December, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert team completed a review of Japanese efforts to decommission TEPCO’s quake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The preliminary results were decidedly mixed. Team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo, IAEA director of nuclear fuel cycle and waste technology, extensively complimented the nation’s “good foundation to improve its strategy and to allocate the necessary resources” to the project. However, his team identified a list of 19 areas for improvement. The situation is still “very complex,” he said. “There will continue to be very challenging issues that must be resolved to ensure the plant's long-term stability.” Many of these issues focused on the removal of fuel assemblies from a spent fuel pool in Reactor Unit 4, as well as on the management of contaminated water and on ongoing efforts to monitor environmental radiation levels. The full report will be ready in early 2014.

Iran Breakthrough?

As the nuclear year drew to a close, the international diplomatic community was still weighing the pros and potential cons of a hard-bargained agreement between Iran and six major world powers including the U.S. The basic framework of the deal calls for a temporary relaxation on the economic sanctions against Iran if the nation halts or scales back aspects of its controversial nuclear program. “This is a process of attempting to restore confidence,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. By capping Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities and freezing its work on a reactor with the potential to produce plutonium, Western officials claim  the deal makes it impossible for Iran to build a bomb in secret. Critics were quick to express a range of worries about the interim deal, which was struck as a first step toward a comprehensive agreement to be hashed out over the next six months.

These were just a few of the big developments in the nuclear world of 2013 – a world adapting to a chain reaction of change.

The biggest stories in nuclear safety and security from 2013 reveal the complexities of the nuclear industry in a changing world.

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February 2014

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org