NEI's Pietrangelo discusses findings of recent industry trip to Japan

Last month, nearly all U.S.-based chief nuclear officers visited Japan to view the country's progress post-Fukushima Daiichi and discuss lessons learned. During today's OnPoint, Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, discusses the key take-aways from discussions with his Japanese counterparts and explains how the U.S. nuclear industry can increase preparedness at its facilities.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Tony, thanks for coming back on the show.

Tony Pietrangelo: Pleased to be here, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Tony, last month nearly all U.S.-based chief nuclear officers traveled to Japan to view progress post-Fukushima and also discuss the lessons learned there. What was the key take-away from the discussions you had with your Japanese counterparts?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well the hallmark of our industry is to incorporate operating experience into our ongoing operations, so we wanted to learn first-hand, first the consequences of Daiichi, what went wrong, what the consequences were. We also visited the Fukushima Daini site, which had four operating reactors that largely experienced the same tsunami and earthquake that Daiichi did, and yet survived the event. So we talked to the station superintendent at Daini, the people who were on staff at Daiichi, and really got a first-hand understanding, I think, of what happened and why and what those lessons are that we can apply here in the United States. And the main take-away for us is that leadership is a key element of this. It's not just the hardware fixes we're putting in and additional equipment we're putting in, but that the people matter, the training that they receive, the leadership that they show in a crisis situation like they underwent in Japan is very, very important, and we as the senior leaders of this industry have to provide that, those operators and make sure we select and train the right people to respond effectively.

Monica Trauzzi: So then how should the United States be improving upon the training that it's giving to its operators and do we have a clearly established line of leadership, especially when it comes to emergency situations?

Tony Pietrangelo: Absolutely. One of the key differences we saw between what we do here in the states and what the Japanese experience is the command and control we have in place. The responsibility lies with the shift supervisor in the control room, not an outside official, not another company official, but right there in the control room who's on the spot. All of our operators are licensed by the NRC. They undergo regular requalification. In Japan, only the shift supervisor receives a license from the regulator there. All the other operators are certified by the company, so they do not undergo the same training that we did or have the same command and control structure that we have.

Monica Trauzzi: So then how good a job is the NRC doing here in the U.S. when it comes to enforcing standards?

Tony Pietrangelo: They do a very good job. I mean enforcement's obviously a huge part of regulation. We try to provide input from an industry perspective on how best to implement the requirements. A lot of the things that NEI does we seek NRC endorsement of our guidance document so that when our membership goes to the field to implement a new requirement or regulation, there's a good common understanding with the regulator of what it takes to effectively meet the rule.

Monica Trauzzi: Japan's prime minister last month ordered all six reactors be decommissioned at the Fukushima site. What was your understanding on the ground of the stability of that site?

Tony Pietrangelo: We didn't go there to evaluate the ongoing issue they have with respect to keeping the cores cool. We did go into their emergency response center where they are monitoring the core cooling and the spent fuel cooling at each of the three reactors. It appears that that's in a stable situation. There's always a possibility of another external hazard, be it an earthquake or another tsunami. In fact, they did have a monsoon or something that hit the week after we left. So there's always a little bit of concern about the reliability of the equipment they have in place. I've been there twice now. I've seen a significant improvement in what they have in place now than what they had previously, so I think we left pretty good assurance that they have their hands around the current situation.

Monica Trauzzi: Before Fukushima nuclear power met about 30 percent of Japan's energy needs. Former NRC Chair Greg Jaczko recently said that he believes the Japanese people have the ability to function without nuclear. What are the conversations on the ground? How do the Japanese talk about the future of nuclear in their country?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well I see mostly industry people there, so they're hoping that they can apply to the regulator, get their reactors recertified, if you will, requalified to be able to run. Right now they're running a tremendous trade imbalance because of the importation of coal and gas to keep their economy running and the lights on, OK. So the country's doing what it has to do, but their ability to survive as an economic power and as a main player in our industry depends on restarting those plants safely and effectively. So, yeah, they can survive, but are they going to continue to be a thriving economy without 30 percent of their baseload? That's an open question.

Monica Trauzzi: But if they're making investments in other sectors like natural gas and taking exports from the United States, liquefied natural gas exports, then will there be money left over, really, to continue to invest in nuclear, which will be more and more costly as the safety standards are ...

Tony Pietrangelo: Well they are investing. There's no question they're investing on the ground now. As part of our trip, we met with the Chief Nuclear Officers from the Japanese utilities. That was a very interesting meeting in that we shared how we do business here with our CNOs and how they're trying to come together to help each other more. There's tremendous investments being made in the plants to make them more safe, in accordance with the new regulatory requirements that have come out in Japan. So I think, as a nation, it's obviously a critical issue for their infrastructure in terms of how they provide energy to their people and their businesses and economy, so, but it's hard to replace 30 percent of your base load generation importing coal and gas. I mean, for the long term, that's probably not sustainable.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there a sense here in the U.S. that a Fukushima-like disaster could happen, and how does that sort of help shape the discussion that we're having here around safety?

Tony Pietrangelo: We could have easily sat back and said hey, we don't, there's a reason tsunami is a Japanese word. We did not do that here. We're basically prepared for any what-if scenario because it could be an earthquake, a hurricane, a bad storm in the winter, you name it. We have to be prepared to respond. And that's why our flex approach that we're putting in place in accordance with our new regulations tries to get at those what-if scenarios that are beyond what the design of the plant was aimed at, so that you can flexibly respond based on what the conditions on the ground are. So we're in the process of implementing that. We saw really a validation of that concept at the Daini site. Again, they experienced the same conditions that Daiichi did. They strung 9 kilometers of cable, replaced motors and pumps and restored core cooling in 30 hours with no preplanning or forethought. To us, that was a validation that the approach we're taking here with lots of preplanning, lots of forethought, lots of training that we could get it done here as well.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We are going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show, Tony.

Tony Pietrangelo: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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