Redundant Backup Systems Are Keeping Nuclear Plants Safe

All U.S. plants are adding emergency pumps, generators, battery banks, chargers, compressors and hoses off site at various locations near the plants to guard against floods and earthquakes.

by Katelyn Ferral, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / December 15, 2014

(TNS) — In the nuclear plant control room with wall-to-wall panels of colorful knobs, levers and switches, one might think a wrong flip or a misplaced twist could become disaster, showering neighboring communities with radioactivity.

That would be a tricky feat, and an unlikely one, nuclear inspectors say.

“At nuclear power plants there are backups to backups to backups. There are so many redundant systems for a single purpose it would take multiple failures and kind of a completely unlikely scenario in order for a consequence to actually occur,” said Brandon Reyes, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission resident inspector at the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in Shippingport.

Nuclear power is an industry in headlines more for the potential dangers it poses to the public, than the energy it affords their lifestyles. It receives a disproportionate amount of scrutiny and concern, says Reyes and his partner, senior inspector Jim Krafty.

“What we hear a lot is that plants are unsafe,” Krafty said. “What I can tell you is if I thought the plant was unsafe, I wouldn't be here ... I've worked in paper mills, I've worked in chemical plants and I'll you what, I'd much rather be working here.”

The two are deployed by the federal government to check the plant's redundant backups daily and ensure they don't have to be used. They're on call 24/7 and arrive as early as 5 a.m. to inspect and monitor all the systems and parts that enable a nuclear reaction to generate power. They observe and monitor the staff of First Energy Nuclear Operating Co., the company who runs and maintains them.

Reyes and Krafty typically start their day walking the red carpet of the control room, making sure those knobs and levers are positioned correctly and functioning the way they should. Before a control can be moved, a peer check system is used. One person announces their intention to change the switch, and a co-worker confirms the move before the action is performed.

Nuclear plants have extensive emergency plans and safety equipment buffered with more plans and equipment. Krafty and Reyes observe and inspect various plant activities, which vary day to day. They also do follow up checks and document all activity and inspection findings in reports that are posted on the NRC's Beaver Valley website. “The idea is that if you catch the things at the lower level ... we don't get to a bigger problem,” Krafty said.

The goal is always to protect the public and to prevent catastrophes like Three Mile Island in 1979, where a reactor partially melted, 250 miles east of Beaver Valley. After Three Mile Island and other disasters like Fukushima in 2011, where an earthquake, then a tsunami caused the nuclear reactors to flood, or terrorist attacks of 9/11, the NRC finds out what went wrong and takes measures to fortify plant systems against threats, Krafty said.

“The assumption is that in any accident, the plant will be able to cope with it based on any equipment they have,” he said. “Fukushima brought another idea, well what if all your equipment gets flooded? How are you going to cope? How are you going to get off site power? You're going to bring some equipment from off site? Well, how are you going to hook it up?”

All U.S. plants are now adding emergency pumps, generators, battery banks, chargers, compressors and hoses off site at various locations near the plants to guard against floods and earthquakes. The equipment is scheduled to be installed by November 2016. After 9/11, razor wire fences, detection systems, more guards were added to improve security, Reyes said.

The inspectors don't live in the plant, but are required to live in communities nearby — Reyes lives in Beaver, Krafty in Aliquippa. Their role is intended to be that of an outside, objective check, they're not allowed to socialize with other plant staffers and they rotate locations every seven years.

“We're here for our specific purpose of maintaining health and public safety, we want to maintain our professional working relationship with the people we're inspecting and don't want to compromise our integrity or even the perception of our integrity,” Reyes said.

©2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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