Why are unusually high numbers of reactor operators failing licensing tests at Plant Vogtle?

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The U.S. Nuclear Reg­ulatory Commission wants Southern Nuclear to explain why an unusually high number of reactor operators failed their initial licensing tests at Plant Vogtle last year.

“They are doing a root cause analysis, and we’re going through a lengthy investigation and analysis, too,” said Katherine Melvin, a spokeswoman at Southern Nuclear.

The training and examination program used at Plant Vogtle is under scrutiny, along with the NRC’s oversight program to screen and approve such tests before they are given.

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Ten new operators were tested last spring, but only three applicants passed both the operating test and the written examination and received licenses, according to NRC records.

The licensing candidates were being trained for work at the Waynesboro plant’s existing Units 1 and 2 and had undergone a rigorous, two-year training program before taking the certification tests, Melvin said.

Normally, you see a passing rate of 80 to 90 percent,”  said NRC spokesman Joey Ledford. “But even in the best circumstances, not everyone passes the initial operator license exam.

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In a letter dated Monday to Tom Tynan, Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle vice president, the NRC operator licensing branch chief, Bruno Caballero, said federal regulators will hold a public meeting March 21 “to provide an opportunity to discuss the high failure rate on the April 2011 initial operator license examination, including planned corrective actions  that could improve the reactor operator training programs and the passing rate on initial licensing exams.”

According to correspondence included with the meeting notice, the exams were developed by Vogtle training staff but modified after deficiencies were identified by the NRC, which later signed off on the exams.

[tabgroup][tab title=”Vogtle Electric Generating Plant“]

The facility is home to two nuclear reactor units that began operation in the late 1980s. Each unit is capable of generating 1,215 megawatts (Mw), for a combined capacity of 2,430 Mw. Power is generated using pressurized water reactors manufactured by Westinghouse, while the turbines and electric generators were manufactured by General Electric.

The plant, one of three in the Southern Company system, is jointly owned by Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%).

In June of 2009, the license governing Plant Vogtle’s operation was extended for another 20 years. Negotiations are underway for the construction of two additional reactors at the site, which would bring the facility to a total of four reactors.

Power uprate projects added approximately 20 megawatts of output to each unit in 2008 while also upgrading several plant systems.

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Westinghouse Electric Company‘s AP1000 reactor design is the first Generation III+ reactor to receive final design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  As Southern Company and its partners, armed with federal loan guarantees of $8.3 billion, move toward construction of two new reactors at a site near Augusta, Ga., opponents are taking aim at the design details.

A critical feature of the design is an unusual containment structure. One part is a free-standing steel dome, 130 feet high, surrounded by a concrete shield building and topped with a tank of emergency water.

The commission has raised concerns about whether a shield building would be strong enough to survive an earthquake. Westinghouse submitted multiple detailed reports to claim that the building is adequate.

Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer commissioned by several anti-nuclear groups, released a report suggesting a different hazard.

In existing plants, he pointed out, the containment consists of a steel liner and a concrete dome, but sometimes the steel liner has rusted through.

In the new Westinghouse design, the liner and the concrete are now separated, to allow air to flow between them, so the temperature inside the steel structure will be kept down by natural forces. But if the steel rusts through, “there is no backup containment behind it,’’ Mr. Gundersen said.

In the new design, he said, metal baffles bolted to the steel direct the air flow, and those baffles are a spot where moisture from the atmosphere could collect. At coastal plants, salty water could collect, and inland, it would be evaporating water from the cooling towers. Inspection, he said, would be difficult.

If the dome rusted through and an accident occurred, the plant could deliver a dose of radiation to the public that is 10 times higher than the N.R.C. limit, Mr. Gundersen said. Instead of drawing fresh air past the dome through a chimney effect, the design would expel radioactive contaminants.

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[tab title=”Public Meeting”]

WHAT: Southern Nuclear officials and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will discuss why a high number of nuclear reactor operators at Plant Vogtle failed initial licensing tests.

WHEN: 1 p.m. March 21

WHERE: NRC Region II, 245 Peachtree Center Ave. NE, Suite 1200, Atlanta.

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Source: Fairewinds Associates   (Website)

Source: The Augusta Chronicle

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