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Seismic Expert Explains Work in U.S. Nuclear Industry, Lessons From Japan

Duke Energy's Seismic Qualification Expert John Richards

Duke Energy's Seismic Qualification Expert John Richards

John Richards has worked for Duke Energy (formerly Duke Power) since receiving his master’s in civil engineering from Virginia Tech in 1982. The majority of his 29 years in the nuclear energy industry have been dedicated to the seismic qualification field. Seismic qualification verifies that the equipment vital to safely shutting down a nuclear energy facility can safely operate during and/or after an earthquake. All U.S. nuclear energy facilities have specific seismic protection standards based on the historical earthquake activity in that area, plus an additional margin of safety.

Q: What are your primary responsibilities at Duke Energy?

Richards: I spent much of my career as a principal engineer, where I performed all aspects of seismic qualification activities for electrical equipment at Duke Energy’s three nuclear power plants.  Seismic qualification provides evidence that safety-related equipment can perform its intended function throughout a seismic event. Testing and analysis is performed in accordance with guidelines from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), industry standards and Duke Energy’s policies and procedures.

I currently manage a team of 11 people with expertise in areas as diverse as seismic qualification, environmental qualification, buried piping, thermal fatigue management and fire protection.  They work to ensure that we’re meeting all of our regulatory requirements in those areas and continuing to monitor the safety of equipment and systems at the three nuclear facilities operated by Duke Energy. My team also works to make sure we’re properly implementing all of our policies and procedures when they conduct assessments of our areas of expertise at the plants.

Q: Why do you enjoy working in the nuclear industry?

Richards: The nuclear energy industry is unique in that we do a lot of collaborative work. I became engaged in a group through the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that does seismic qualification testing through a method called “shake-table testing” for a large collection of utilities. “Shake-table testing” simulates earthquake motions while the equipment is wired up and operating to verify it will be able to function throughout the earthquake that the facility is licensed to withstand.

I also became involved in another EPRI group that uses experience from earthquakes to identify ways to evaluate equipment based on how it works during a real event. Those kinds of groups got me involved not only with American utilities, but also international companies in Europe and eventually in Japan. I had the chance to participate in a committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency looking at a variety of seismic issues worldwide. Year after year, there have been a lot of different opportunities and experiences to learn new things and grow in different ways.

Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve done over the course of your career in the nuclear industry?

Richards: I was part of a group of 30 engineers and scientists from around the world who toured the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan five months after it experienced a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in 2007. It was my first opportunity to visit a nuclear plant that experienced a significant earthquake, not to mention my first trip to Japan.  It was fascinating to see how well the science and engineering worked in a real seismic event.  Working with the experts in Japan and discussing the situation with experts from around the world was a terrific learning experience.

I also had the chance to represent the nuclear energy industry in 2008 at an NRC Commissioners’ Briefing, where we discussed seismic design for the new reactors currently under consideration by the commission.  It was a very unique opportunity to speak directly to the NRC commissioners and to apply the experience I’ve gained over the years of doing seismic qualification work and visiting industrial facilities that have experienced earthquakes.

Q: You visited the Fukushima Daini facility after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Tell us about your experience and some of the important lessons you learned.

Richards: The plant’s operator, TEPCO, asked EPRI to coordinate a team to inspect Fukushima Daini for earthquake and tsunami damage and to discuss with them their plans for improving the plant in the future. Our team inspected several buildings and evaluated a broad range of mechanical and electrical equipment, including pumps, motors, valves, tanks, batteries, transformers, switchgear, heat exchanges, fans and electrical distribution panels.  Following this comprehensive review, we concluded the earthquake didn’t damage any safety-related structures, systems or components.

Based on my experiences at Fukushima Daini this year and at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in 2007, I learned that Japan’s seismic design practices and seismic qualification methods, while developed differently than those in the U.S., also result in a robust nuclear energy facility. Both Fukushima Daini and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa shut down as designed following each of their earthquakes, and there is a lot to be learned from their experiences.

Q: How has the Fukushima Daiichi incident affected your field?

Richards: Within days of the disaster in Japan, the nuclear energy industry began a variety of inspections to confirm the ability of our reactors to withstand earthquakes and other events and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) issued a variety of requests for inspections and information gathering. Typically, those involve inspections at every facility to confirm they don’t have earthquake vulnerabilities and to evaluate the strategies in place for dealing with a complete loss of electricity. We are also evaluating options, along with the entire nuclear energy industry, for enhancing the safety of plants for even larger earthquakes and floods.

Q: In what ways do you work with your colleagues within the nuclear industry to share best practices about seismic qualification?

Richards: There is a lot of information sharing in the nuclear power industry, beginning with INPO, which facilitates the sharing and distribution of operating experience from companies within the U.S. and internationally. The goal of this information sharing is for every utility to learn from these experiences and improve the way that they are running their nuclear plants.

Various committees under EPRI, nuclear plant owner’s groups and the Nuclear Energy Institute also provide many opportunities to share operating experience.  A lot of information sharing occurs through periodic meetings, conference calls and newsletters. For example, the EPRI groups that perform collaborative shake-table testing and study earthquake experience share their results and insights to improve the seismic qualification field.

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