The Need for Maintaining Nuclear Air-Cleaning Systems Properly to Protect Public Health and Safety

Nuclear power plant by a river
It’s crucial for nuclear plants to have an air-cleaning system for day-to-day operations – as well as a backup one that activates during emergencies – to prevent disasters and protect the public’s health.

In the event of a nuclear disaster, it’s essential that nuclear plants have air-cleaning systems that have been properly maintained in order to minimize radioactive exposure and protect the safety of workers, neighbors, and the environment.

Air-cleaning systems in nuclear facilities (and elsewhere) play a crucial role in protecting public health—both on a day-to-day basis and also in the event of a nuclear disaster. They typically work by filtering out dangerous particles and removing radioactive substances from the air. In the case of an unplanned release of nuclear material, the air-cleaning systems in the nuclear plant provide an essential defense to mitigate the radioactive exposure, according to Ron Bellamy, PhD, Co-Program Director of the In-Place Filter Testing Workshop, which has been offered by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for the past several decades. Bellamy is also President of the International Society for Nuclear Air Treatment Technologies and Chair of the ASME Committee on Nuclear Air and Gas Treatment.

Understanding the History of Air-Cleaning Regulations

“Nuclear facilities have by-products that are radioactive and therefore could be harmful to the safety of workers and the environment,” Bellamy explains. “Therefore, in the 40s and 50s, the federal government had supported research in this area and made sure there were federal regulations in place to support public health and the environment.”

He points out that past emergencies at nuclear power plants such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania have particularly called attention for the need to ensure that air filtration systems are functioning up to speed and also to have redundancies in place in case there is a failure at any point along the system. As a result of past lessons learned, nuclear plants today have two different kinds of air-cleaning systems in place: one for day-to-day operations and one that kicks in in an emergency.

Nuclear facilities have by-products that are radioactive and therefore could be harmful to the safety of workers and the environment. In the 40s and 50s, the government made sure there were federal regulations in place to support public health and the environment.

Guidelines to Enforce the Federal Laws

Today, the United States also has stringent regulations in place to govern the operation, maintenance, and testing of these and other nuclear air-cleaning systems, Bellamy points out, adding that he is the primary author for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) regulatory guidance for nuclear air-cleaning systems. This series of documents provides important advice for people working in nuclear facilities on how to comply with the federal laws in the most effective way.

“Each title of the code of federal regulations has a specific focus,” he says. “For instance, the basic code for nuclear energy is 10CFR, while 50CFR is how to design a nuclear plant. You need a containment structure and a reactor.” He adds that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Russia did not have such a containment structure, meaning that during the catastrophic nuclear accident and resulting fire in 1986, extensive amounts of radioactive material were released into the surrounding areas.

Sharing the Guidelines Broadly

The U.S. regulations—and the guidelines on how to enforce them—are currently considered the gold standard in other countries, Bellamy stresses.

“The guidelines show what NRC thinks is the best way to comply with the laws. The recommendations are not a requirement of how to do things, but after years of experience, we are saying this is clearly the best way,” he says.

These guidelines can also play an important role in training the latest generation of engineers and other experts working with nuclear filtration systems on how to meet the highest standards in keeping air clean and safe from nuclear by-products.

Today, the United States also has stringent regulations in place to govern the operation, maintenance, and testing of these and other nuclear air-cleaning systems.

The Importance of Air Cleaning for Other Industries

The importance of air-cleaning filtration systems and maintenance is certainly not limited to nuclear settings or applications, according to John Price, PhD, CIH, CSP, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at Northeastern University, who also serves as Co-Director of Harvard’s In-Place Filter Testing Workshop. Price says that other industries have their own sets of standards governing clean air safety that may differ from those that regulate nuclear facilities, but the basic concept is universal.

In fact, he points out that similar standards are in place to protect air filtration systems used for contamination control for clean-room technology, micro-manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals. For instance, manufacturing of sensitive products like computer chips and medications require particulate matter to be filtered from the air down to a nanoscale, Price says. This requires equipment to be highly tested and maintained on a regular basis to prevent contamination and to have redundancies in place in the event of equipment failure to prevent products from being compromised.

In addition, maintaining air-cleaning systems properly, and having emergency backups to filter harmful substances from the air, is also crucial for people working in facilities management and maintenance that oversee HVAC systems for biotechnology or chemical processing systems such as for air purification; engineering services; and medical, biological, pharmaceutical, and chemical research.

Other Benefits of Understanding Clean Air Standards  

With clean air regulations such an important component in so many industries, Price points out that even people who are not personally responsible for working on air filtration systems can benefit from having an overall understanding of what laws and standards are currently in place in their industries. “This will allow them to have cross-conversations with others who handle the more technical side of the equation,” Price points out, ultimately ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Further, for people who work in aging facilities, understanding the current regulations can be critical to make sure they are integrated efficiently into renovation plans.

Having a thorough understanding of the federal and industry laws and standards can ensure that facilities (both nuclear and non-nuclear) will be up to code to provide optimal functioning and safety on a daily basis. It will also prepare systems to be ready to weather any emergencies that may occur in the future with minimal impact on the people, products, and environments they serve.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers the In-Place Filter Testing Workshop, which focuses on testing and certifying systems containing HEPA filtration and gas adsorption systems for nuclear and non-nuclear applications.