Ep 74: Richard Barrett - Fmr. Senior Executive , Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Q1 - Early Projects at Los Alamos National Lab
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into engineering and physics?
Richard Barrett: Richard Barrett started out looking at looking at an academic career with a PhD in physics from the University of Virginia. When it came time to complete his postdoctoral work, Barrett saw more opportunities in applied research and ended up going to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. There were about 7,000 people at Los Alamos at the time. Barrett’s job was to write and apply computer codes for the specific purpose of doing calculation of the way in which neutrons interact with devices such as nuclear fusion reactors. The cross-section is a metaphor for how big the nucleus looks to a neutron that is approaching it. Neutrons behave differently in different energy groups, but with today’s technology, there can be many more groups and the way these cross-sections are used can be fine-tuned. A group is a range of energies reflecting a weighted average. Barrett’s coding at Los Alamos was for development of the fast breeder reactor program, which was sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE) during the Carter administration. In 1978, Barrett also became involved in a group that was developing a visual model of the 1975 United States energy system. This data of where energy was being found, mined, stored, converted, and used was kept by federal agencies, state and local agencies, universities, and corporations. These spaghetti charts broke out the use of energy by sectors - industrial, commercial, residential, and transportation - and within each sector, how much energy was useful and how much energy was lost.
Q2 - Nuclear Reactor Safety Systems
Bret Kugelmass: How did you transition over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
Richard Barrett: During Richard Barrett’s last two years at Los Alamos National Lab, Barrett was on loan to the Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters in Germantown, Maryland. He worked with the Office of Energy Research completing assessments of the quality and usefulness of their research programs. Around that time, the Reagan administration came in and they had a different idea of how the U.S. should be dealing with energy, with a stronger focus on industry over government. Barrett was impressed with the quality of people and the clarity of the mission at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), leading him to accept an offer for employment. He started out working in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, where he spent most of his career, which deals with the direct interaction with the reactors. The NRC was most concerned about the reactor safety systems. The frontline safety systems are those which are meant to shutdown the chain reaction if anything goes wrong, so you are not dealing with the power and nowhere to put it. Systems must also be in place to replenish the emergency core cooling systems if there is a coolant leak. Other systems include heat removal systems, and backup systems, which support frontline systems. These include electricity, compressed air, and batteries, among others. Systems must be designed to meet the requirements during normal operation and also robust enough and fast enough to meet the demands during an accident. Design basis accidents or events involve failures of the reactor systems. The purpose of a design basis event is to check the capability of the system. A beyond design basis accident, such as a station blackout, is looked at in a probabilistic way.
Q3 - NRC Reactor Design Guidelines
Bret Kugelmass: Is there a catalog of all the things that could possibly happen at a nuclear reactor?
Richard Barrett: There is a catalog of all the things you have to look at in nuclear reactor design, not just accidents. The Standard Review Plan has 19 chapters, such as electrical, instrumentation, and materials, which contain sections and subsections totalling about 300 topics. This document provides guidance on what has to be submitted, qualifications for people who are reviewing it, criteria for acceptability, technical guidance available, and other details. Regulatory Guides go into detail about specific topics, such as the assessment of the possibility that there will be an explosion of a munitions factory in the vicinity of the plant, or a train full of munitions that goes down the tracks a few miles from the plant. There is a Regulatory Guide that tells you how to assess the likelihood of it and the consequences in terms of pressure exerted on the plant. Richard Barrett became part of the Senior Executive Leadership Service, a group of executives there to provide continuity when there is a change in administration. There was a three year period in which Richard Barrett was responsible for the licensing of thirteen nuclear power plants in the Midwest.
Q4 - Reactor Design Applications to the NRC
Bret Kugelmass: What advanced reactors were being designed in the 1980’s?
Richard Barrett: In the 1980’s, advanced light water reactors designs were being pursued. A boiling water reactor design and a pressurized water design were approved. A passive design called the AP-600, which eventually became the AP-1000, got certification and two plants based on that design are currently under construction. A passive plant has safety systems that do not rely on electric power, but instead passive mechanisms such as in the form of batteries, or gravity. The AP-1000 reactor is designed so that the frontline safety systems can operate in the absence of AC electric power. This review involved capabilities of systems that haven’t been used before and computer codes which have been validated through testing on scale model types of reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) encourages designers to come in early and have pre-application discussions to focus on what’s new and different in the design. NuScale’s design cools the reactor without reactor coolant pumps. The NRC would want to have early conversations with NuScale to find out what the technical basis is that can justify it can work reliably and with margin. The NRC started to develop a process to communicate with applicants and determine what their plans were.
Q5 - Risk in Nuclear Design and Operations
Bret Kugelmass: What is a risk informed application process?
Richard Barrett: A risk informed process is not risk based; criteria is not set aside. Risk informed application takes into account the consequences of the accidents that are involved without getting rid of defense in depth, margin, and risk numbers. The allowed outage times that could be taken for some safety equipment was changed based on an acceptable block of risk. For three years, Richard Barrett was in charge of the agency’s emergency response program. There was an emergency operations centers at headquarters and regional offices with operations officers on duty 24/7/365. This group was in contact with all utilities, major facilities, federal agencies responsible for emergency response, and state and local governments responsible for protective actions such as evacuations and sheltering of people. The ability of motor operated valves to open and close to meet their design requirements became a big problem, as they would become locked because of the differential pressure across the valve stem. In one case, a tornado did a 360 degree circle around a plant and took out all the off-site power. You have to be ready for things that can’t happen, because they do. At the NRC, a very high priority is placed on gathering operational experience, which is analyzed for trends and patterns.
Q6 - Role of NRC Globally
Bret Kugelmass: How is transparency at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission used as a positive?
Richard Barrett: If the information is put out there, you help people understand what it means, and the public has an opportunity to speak, transparency builds trust. Worldwide, transparency is one of the things that makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) a hallmark, since you can find out what they are thinking in real time and how and why they are reacting to what’s happening. During Fukushima, the NRC was there with their expertise to help them think through it, as well as at Chernobyl. The NRC participates in IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) programs and the NRC participates in important events around the world. The NRC wants to know how their plants will be affected, but also to provide assistance to the host country. In the risk informed area, there was a proposal for rulemaking that would have made more use of risk in terms of the way in which components in systems have to be designed. Nuclear grade systems are extremely expensive compared to other industries, since they have to meet environmental qualification requirements, deal with external events, and meet certain quality assurance requirements. This risk informed approach would allow safety systems to not be treated as “gold plated”. This proposal was eventually passed, but there was a great deal of disagreement. Over the last ten years, Richard Barrett has been working with ADSDM, who has a contract with the NRC to provide consulting and training to regulatory bodies in countries that are emerging nuclear power countries.
Q7 - Future Nuclear Development
Bret Kugelmass: What is an example of something that might catch an emerging nuclear power country off guard?
Richard Barrett: One big surprise for emerging nuclear power countries was that it wasn’t so important to train a bunch of nuclear physicists, contrary to having really good nuclear grade welders. If you don’t have the infrastructure, it is difficult to build and operate the nuclear stations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) started the Milestones program, which was defined to assist an emerging nuclear country in the decision about whether they should go into nuclear. If they were to go into nuclear, IAEA helped teach them what kind of people, tools, computer codes, infrastructure, and financing they would need. It’s easy to look at the nuclear industry in the U.S. and focus on the nuclear power plants that are shutting down and saying it could be the end of nuclear power in the U.S. Richard Barrett is inspired by motivated people forming new companies in industry and excitement at the National Labs to support these companies. The NRC is being innovative and environmental people are supporting nuclear.