Fission Stories #147: OPDRV: Sidestepping License Requirements

October 1, 2013 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor


It’s not what you get from banging on the keyboard – two fingers from you right hand and three fingers from your left hand or even five fingers from your middle hand.

It’s not what you see in Wheel of Fortune before buying more vowels.

It’s yet another nuclear industry acronym, this time standing for Operation with the Potential to Drain the Reactor Vessel (OPDRV).

And according to BWROG (sorry, that’s Boiling Water Reactor Owners Group) slides, the term dates date to 1971.

OPDRV shows up places like in the BWR/4 Standard Technical Specifications issued by the NRC. Technical Specification 3.5.2 requires that at least two low-pressure emergency core-cooling subsystems be operable when a reactor is shut down. If only one subsystem is available, workers are required to immediately suspend OPDRV. Makes sense – if you’re down to only one emergency system, it’s prudent to stop doing things that might create an emergency.

But what is an OPDRV?

Unlike a rhetorical question having no answer, the problem with this question is that it has many answers.

It could be using an inflatable seal or freeze seal (applying a blanket of liquid nitrogen around a section of piping to freeze the water inside and form a pseudo-closed valve) to retain water inside the reactor vessel, since loss of air pressure or thawing of the freeze seal had the potential to drain water from the reactor vessel.

It might not be an uncontrolled and unplanned loss of water from the reactor vessel as long as makeup systems were available to more than compensate for the loss.

Like beauty, OPDRV was initially in the eye of the beholder.

But ambiguity about what constitutes an OPDRV is bad, since safety steps must be taken when an OPDRV condition exists.

So, after a series of public meetings and exchanges of letters with the nuclear industry, the NRC clarified the matter via enforcement policy guidance issued in December 2012:

The licensee [i.e., plant owner] shall consider any activity that could potentially result in draining or siphoning the RPV [reactor pressure vessel] water level below the top of the fuel, including operating involving aligning and realigning plant systems prior to achieving steady-state water level control, without taking credit for mitigating measures, to be an OPDRV activity.

Absent using English, it doesn’t get any clearer than this. Whew! Disaster averted, the nuclear industry and its regulator are, after 40-plus years, on the same OPDRV page.

Not so fast (or maybe too fast)!

Plant owners have reported several OPDRV violations already in 2013. For example:

In each case, the plant owner planned and conducted OPDRVs that violated the reactor’s operating license. Thus, they admitted, in writing, to have engaged in deliberate misconduct because they intentionally conducted activities that violated the terms of the reactor operating licenses.

Why? How?

Because of instead of complying with the explicit terms of their operating licenses, they conformed to the NRC’s December 2012 enforcement policy guidance. The NRC’s enforcement policy guidance was issued as an internal memo and outlined steps plant owners could take to conduct OPDRVs that violated their reactors’ operating licenses. The NRC’s memo indicated it was okay to violate regulatory requirements as long as certain conditions were met. In short, plant owners were given the option of either meeting legal requirements or a few steps outlined in an NRC memo.

Our Takeaway

“Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more” is a Monty Python skit. It should not be the NRC’s approach to protecting public health and safety.

The NRC issues operating licenses for reactors after a public process that allows people the chance to intervene if they believe requirements contained within the proposed license do not provide sufficient protection. The NRC’s regulations provide the means for plant owners to revise operating license requirements they feel are too stringent. The NRC’s license amendment process also allows people the chance to intervene if they feel the proposed revisions do not result in sufficient protection.

The Hatch, River Bend, and Susquehanna owners could have used the NRC’s license amendment process to seek changes to operating license requirements consistent with how they wanted to handle OPDRV activities. But instead they deliberately violated operating license requirements – clear and undeniable violations of the NRC’s deliberate misconduct requirements in 10 CFR 50.5.

To be fair, the NRC not only endorsed the violation of regulatory requirements, it provided owners with the roadmap for doing so. The NRC essentially told plant owners to forget about all those strict requirements established via open, fair, transparent public processes – just try to follow the steps outlined in an informal, non-public memo derived from NRC-industry negotiations.

By condoning deliberate misconduct by these plant owners, the NRC is aiding and abetting wrong-doing. In doing so (or in doing nothing), the NRC is also depriving the public of its legal rights under the regulations. If the plant owners sought license amendments as the regulations require, the public would have the right to intervene. Even if the public did not intervene in the license amendment process, that process requires the NRC staff to issue a formal safety evaluation concluding that the proposed activity adequately protects public health and safety. But the NRC short-circuited this fair, transparent process for essentially its private deal with industry.

The NRC must cease its practice of aiding and abetting wrong-doing by plant owners. And the NRC must stop doing the public wrong by unlawfully depriving us of our legal rights to intervene in de facto operating license amendments.

The steps outlined in the NRC’s 2012 memo might very well provide comparable protection as the requirements in the reactor operating licenses. But it is entirely inappropriate to apply them until AFTER a public license amendment process results in their formally replacing the license requirements.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.