Jan 18, 2019

Ep 126: Stephen Burns - Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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Show notes

Q: Tell me about yourself.

A: Stephen Burns is currently a Nuclear Sector Manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL). He was born in Manchester, in Northwest England. In that same year, in Northwest England, the first electron made its way from a nuclear power plant to an electric grid.

Q: What is the nuclear significance to that area?

A: Burns’ homeland in Northwest England has a deep nuclear energy history. In the 18th century, John Dalton was the first person in the modern era to come up with the idea of atoms and how it might explain chemical behavior. In 1911, the University of Manchester discovered the nuclear nature of atoms by way of Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment. This was the first discovery that atoms have a nuclear nature; most of it is empty space, with a kernel in the middle called a nucleus.

Q: Was this a topic you were always interested in?

A: Burns studied physics at Imperial College in London, then returned to Manchester to complete a PHD in theoretical physics. He specialized in the field of quantum gravity, working to quantize the gravitational field. Burns completed research at the University of Manchester studying this topic. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) brought in people from specialized disciplines and taught them useful skills. Through this program, Burns learned probabilistic risk assessment (PRA).

Q: What is the UKAEA? Is there a comparable institution in the US?

A: The UKAEA that Burns worked for at the time doesn’t exist anymore, as it has been supplanted by other organizations. It served both the regulator and the industry. A US National Lab is a somewhat parallel organization, as they serve industry, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Q: How did that lead to your exploration of PRA?

A: Burns’ motivation for pursuing PRA was based on the state of current UK technology. All the reactors in the UK were gas reactors, carbon dioxide cooled and graphite moderated. Light water reactor (LWR) technology, created in the US, had become the dominant international technology. The UK wanted to benefit from all the insights coming research and development (R&D). UK built its first LWR pressurized water reactor in Eastern England at at site called Sizewell. In the late 1970’s, a new wave of PRA methods was developed called the WASH-1400, or the Reactor Safety Study. Burns learned about those new methods in order to apply them to Sizewell.

Q: Was the WASH-1400 used to predict the impact of a nuclear accident on the surrounding population?

A: WASH-1400 was a true risk study that Burns implemented in his studies. Risk takes into account the consequences, but also the probability of it happening; this is the key ingredient to a PRA. The design-basis accidents that NRC had been using were a large break LOCA (Loss of Coolant Accident). After the risk study was done, the large break LOCA was not risk dominant due to the low probability of it happening. Other accidents were smaller in consequence, but larger in probability.

Q: Has there been a large break LOCA at a commercial facility?

A: No, Burns’ research in PRA shows this is viewed as highly unlikely. Small break LOCA’s were dominating the risk, as well as other risks such as loss of offsite power. Even though it wasn’t as severe from an impact perspective, it was more likely to happen. The PRA calculated what events could occur initially, how the plant would respond to it, how the safety systems would respond, and ultimately, if everything went wrong - with the incredibly low probability of that happening - what the consequences might be in the plant and beyond the fenceline. Burns was asked to become the Technical Attaché. The NRC funded a program in which they assigned persons from UKAEA and to a lab so they could share insights between UK and US. Burns was assigned to Sandia National Labs for a couple years to update the WASH-1400 study by adding more reactors.

Q: Did the WASH-1400 lower the risk from previous studies?

A: No risk assessment had been done on nuclear power plants before, so the WASH-1400 study formalized that process and allowed Burns to implement in his research across energy sectors. Risk perception and risk assessment are very different fields, but work hand-in-hand. Dread factor and knowledge of exposure are factors for risk perception. People do not understand nuclear energy and the technology associated with it, especially with the development of nuclear weapons.

Q: Can the perception change?

A: Burns is looking at ways to make them even safer via inherent safety. Conventional nuclear power plants have many safeguards, multiple redundancies. This creates low probability. Inherent safety relies less on engineered features, but take advantage of the laws of physics. This could change public perception.

Q: Were you at Sandia when you authored the NUREG-1150 paper?

A: Burns was part of the analysis team at Sandia, and then moved to Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio where he was involved in actually writing the document. It was published in 1990.

Q: What were the conclusions of NUREG-1150?

A: Burns had to analyze a large quantity of research between WASH 1400 and NUREG-1150. One insight was that some uncertainty bounds got a wider, but overall, concluded that risks were lower. The paper validated the conclusion that nuclear power is extraordinarily safe.

Q: Battelle has a relationship with the labs; is that how you found your way to PNNL?

A: After working at Battelle, Burns worked for SAIC doing PRA, and diversified beyond nuclear into oil and gas. Burns then set up his own company based in Columbus doing risk assessment for the private sector. Burns got recruited by PNNL at this point.

Q: What topics did you discover at PNNL?

A: Burns appreciated the wide portfolio of types of projects at the lab; nuclear was a large portion of this work. Risk is about defining scenarios, probability of them happening, and consequences of that happening. Risk analysts want a bit of diversity, which was offered at PNNL.

Q: In the nuclear sector here, what projects are you engaged in?

A: Burns oversees all nuclear energy work. He works with the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, commercial organizations, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Licensing and regulation is one of the biggest concerns in the industry. NRC is working to develop a different approach towards licensing for different reactor technologies. Burns’ group advises the NRC on these changes.

Q: How do you assist the NRC?

A: Burns’ group provides a technical, understanding of materials and how a material behaves once it is exposed to harsh environments. This affects how facilities are licensed and regulated. The NRC is becoming increasingly focused on risk informed approach as opposed to deterministic approach.

Q: Do other regulatory bodies use risk informed principles?

A: Burns’ international experience allows him to compare different principles of approaching risk in different countries. Burns helps NRC to review amendment requests utilizing the PRA. His group also advises the NRC on non-destructive examinations, especially in nuclear power plants as they age. PNNL has Category 2 nuclear facilities capable of doing post-irradiation testing.

Q: What is a Category 2 facility?

A: Facility category depends on what types of materials you can handle; Burn’s facilities can handle spent fuel and irradiated materials, and has a radiochemical processing lab.

Q: What DOE work are you involved in?

A: Burns completes work for the DOE across the entire fuel cycle. On the front end of the cycle, his group is currently examining the viability of extracting uranium from seawater, working in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Lab. PNNL has a Marine Sciences Lab that is used for this study. Burns’ group also works on reactor technology, radiochemistry, and material science on the back end of the fuel cycle.

Q: What was your relationship with the Hanford site?

A: Hanford was part of the Manhattan Project where plutonium was produced, and Burns was part of the technical authority to shut down some of the reactors and how to conduct clean up.

Q: What about the science behind clean up for spent fuel from commercial cells?

A: Burns’ group was involved in Yucca Mountain, and is looking to be involved in the future, due to their expertise in spent fuel. Risks analyzed include transportation and long-term storage. They are also working on how to instrument existing reactors. This merges PRA technology with materials technology. The US currently has a national policy against reprocessing spent fuel, due to proliferation. Modifying reprocessing methodologies to discourage proliferation could allowing the US to reprocess in the future.

Q: What are you most proud of? What’s next?

A: Burns is proud to be an important player with NRC getting design certification for the Vogtle plant. Working with the DOE and the Idaho labs were also beneficial to filling the niches that Burns group specialized in. Burns is confident that the golden age of nuclear energy is ahead of us and has untapped potential benefits.

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