A worker at a nuclear power plant meters the radioactivity at the reactor's cooling pond. NFPA codes are key components of fire safety for the nuclear industry. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
As debate continues over the role nuclear-generated power should play in our energy future, NFPA codes help keep nuclear facilities safe.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
By Paul May
At a meeting in new orleans in october, President Barack Obama said that he was in favor of an increased reliance on nuclear-generated electricity as the country searches for ways to reduce the greenhouse gases commonly blamed for global warming. "There’s no reason why technologically we can’t employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way," Obama said, according to wire service reports. "Japan does it and France does it, and [nuclear-generated electricty] doesn’t have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."
Obama’s plain-spoken assessment is part of a broader examination of how we generate our power, and how it affects the environment. A growing demand for energy, especially in developing nations, along with growing concern over climate change and the environmental impact of fossil-fuel energy sources, are driving interest in any energy source that can claim an environmental advantage. That includes relatively familiar "clean" sources such as nuclear.
Whether the nation heeds Obama’s imperative or not, NFPA will continue to work toward making our current and future nuclear facilities as fire-safe as possible. NFPA has contributed a number of documents related to fire safety at nuclear power plants, ranging from construction to decommissioning. For example, designers of the next generation of atomic power plants can use NFPA 804, Fire Protection for Advanced Light Water Reactor Electric Generating Plants, which takes a prescriptive approach to implementing a fire protection program in new plants. Another document, NFPA 805, Performance-Based Standard for Fire Protection for Light Water Reactor Electric Generating Plants, aims to protect the safety of the public, the environment, and plant personnel from a fire and its potential effect on safe reactor operations. It covers all phases of plant operation, including shutdown, degraded conditions, and decommissioning. In the document, performance-based design methods are examined in detail to ensure that they produce the utmost in plant safety. NFPA 805 has helped maintain the nuclear industry’s safety record in this country since the document’s incarnation in 2001. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recognizes the standard as a voluntary fire protection option for existing nuclear power plants. About half of the nation’s power plants have written letters of intent to transition to the new licensing, which asks plants to voluntarily comply with the standard.
NFPA has also been working on the creation of another document, NFPA 806, Performance-Based Standard for Fire Protection for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Electric Generating Plants Change Process. This document focuses on risk-informed fire protection in advanced nuclear power plants where any change process is being performed. It is to be used during construction and all phases of plant operation, including shutdown, degraded conditions, and decommissioning. This standard, which will be issued sometime in 2010, is intended to further improve nuclear safety and to become nationally accepted.
The timing of such codes is key, since nuclear is central to the discussion of how we can minimize our reliance on fossil fuels for our energy needs, especially energy deemed "clean" for its low level of emissions. Currently, the U.S. draws about one-fifth of its electricity from nuclear power; more than two-thirds of our nation’s electricity is generated by coal, oil, and natural gas. All of these release nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, among other chemicals, into the atmosphere. By contrast, renewable energy sources — hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass — a re far cleaner in terms of emissions, with only biomass releasing any kind of waste product into the environment. While we have built hydroelectric plants on many major rivers and other locations where electricity can be efficiently generated, we have many more opportunities to tap sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Nuclear-energy advocates point out that those methods of energy generation carry higher production costs than nuclear, and that nuclear produces the most electricity per dollar of production cost. Renewable-source advocates point out that, while nuclear-generated power might be considered clean, uranium is not renewable, and that the waste from the refining process requires thousands of years of storage.
Despite the arguments for and against — many of which were on display last spring in Congress, during the debate over the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill and its provisions for a national renewable-energy mandate — it seems likely that nuclear energy will become an increasingly attractive option if the cost of oil remains volatile. The nuclear industry uses France as its ideal — roughly 80 percent of that country’s energy needs are generated by nuclear — and is eager to make its product appear as safe and attractive as possible. For example, technology exists for the creation of reactors that process and obtain power from spent fuel rods — recycling, nuclear-style.
More needs, more codes
At the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center in Pomona, California, last March, President Obama spoke of his ambitious plan for electric cars. "We will put 1 million plug-in hybrid vehicles on America’s roads by 2015," he told the assembled crowd.
He announced a $2 billion competitive grant program designed to spark the manufacturing of batteries and other components for hybrid vehicles, an effort that in turn would create thousands of jobs across the country. In fact, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package included $2.4 billion towards the creation of new electric cars, with the largest portion of the money going to battery manufacturers.
This raises a key question: If electricity becomes a common means of powering our automobiles, how will we accommodate the increased draw on the national electrical power grid?
The nuclear industry promotes itself as the answer to our country’s expanding energy needs, from electric vehicles to the growing use of high-draw electronic technology such as laptops and new-generation televisions, and as the industry grows and develops, it will offer NFPA further opportunities to develop codes and standards.
For instance, the Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, has announced that the nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is no longer an acceptable site for the storage of nuclear waste. This means that more plants are going to have to store nuclear waste on-site for an indefinite period of time, in facilities that were probably not originally designed to store such waste.
Those kinds of large changes in the industry mean that we may one day see an NFPA document pertaining to the safe on-site storage of nuclear waste. Similarly, there is discussion within the atomic energy community of developing mini-reactors to provide power on a more local scale. Sandia National Laboratories has already developed a working model of such a reactor, and as this technology improves, documents concerning their safe installation, maintenance, and removal may also become necessary.
Fire, because it is so volatile, is one of the most likely causes for a dangerous event at any power plant. With that in mind, and considering the trend towards more risk-informed standards that incorporate best-engineering practices with a proven track record, NFPA will probably develop more performance-based codes and standards that cover all sources of alternative energy. As the use of wind farms and geothermal wells becomes more widespread, fire safety in those facilities will become more critical to ensure the plants’ continued productivity and the continued supply of electricity to consumers.
The Bush Administration supported the development of hydrogen-powered cars, and the reality is that hydrogen, despite the current administration’s push for electric vehicle technology, may also play a key role in powering the vehicles of the future. As with electric-powered vehicles, the creation of the hydrogen necessary to power millions of vehicles raises interesting questions. Currently, the majority of our hydrogen is produced as a byproduct of petroleum refining. But hydrogen can also be produced easily and cheaply during a nuclear power plant’s daily operations through a process called steam methane reforming. If hydrogen becomes part of our vehicle-fuel mix, NFPA should be ready to respond with appropriate fire and explosion safety in NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies Code, which is under development and expected for release in 2011.
The primary goal of NFPA’s energy-related standards is to ensure that power plants of all kinds, nuclear and otherwise, have the necessary safety features, fail-safes, and procedures to help mitigate fire threats. Ensuring safety may not make an industry the greenest, but it’s a start.
Paul May, F.P.E., is a staff liaison and an engineer in NFPA’s Hazardous Materials/Chemicals Department.