Nuclear Fuel Services review shows 'marked improvement'

Brad Hicks • May 9, 2012 at 8:43 AM

ERWIN — Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were at the Unicoi County Courthouse Tuesday evening to discuss the results of the annual licensee performance review for Nuclear Fuel Services for the 2011 review period.

According to NRC officials, the Erwin facility exhibited marked improvement during this most recent assessment period, which was from Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2011, in its safety culture performance as compared to the 2010 review.

Following a December 2009 consultation between NRC and NFS officials, several process areas at the facility were voluntarily halted until more stringent safety measures could be implemented. This followed two incidents that occurred at the Erwin plant in fall 2009, including an October incident at a bowl-cleaning station that caused the generation of nitrogen compound fumes and damaged piping. No employees were injured in either incident.

In January 2010, the NRC issued a confirmatory action letter to NFS that outlined measures to be addressed and implemented prior to the restart of the halted process areas.

During its 2010 licensee performance review, NRC officials said NFS had not made sufficient improvement strides in the areas of safety operations and facility support, and pointed out that not all of the previously halted lines had been restarted and actions outlined in the confirmatory action letter had not been completed in their entirety.

However, NRC said the results of the 2011 review reflect improvements at NFS.

“NFS continues to conduct licensed activities safely and securely, protecting public health and the environment. Also, NFS’ performance has improved such that no areas needing improvement were identified,” Manuel Crespo with the NRC said.

Despite identifying a total of four violations of “low safety significance” in the review areas of safety operations, facility support and radiological controls, Crespo said no areas needing improvement were identified in these areas. He also said NFS responded appropriately to conditions that led to these violations. No violations or areas needing improvement were identified by NRC inspectors in the area of special topics during the 2011 review period.

Last July, the NRC gave authorization to resume operations on its uranium hexafluoride line, the last of the previously halted process areas, and Crespo said the line was safely restarted. Last fall, NFS was also able to close the confirmatory action letter as its outlined requirements were met, according to the NRC. Radiological doses to NFS employees and the public and environmental releases were below regulatory limits, according to the NRC.

“In 2011, our assessment concluded that NFS was operated in a safe and secure manner,” Alan Blamey with the NRC said. “NFS has shown improvement since the previous assessment in 2010.”

Still, Blamey said vigilance on the part of NFS is needed to ensure that improvements continue.

“An absence of areas needing improvement doesn’t mean performance cannot or should not be improved,” he said. “It’s imperative that NFS, like other licensees, continue to seek improvements in all performance areas.”

NFS President Joseph Henry described 2011 as a “transformational” year for the facility. He also said safety is the company’s top priority.

“We have been and continue to be focused on a safe and secure work environment with informed and accountable workers,” Henry said. “We have a significant number of programs, processes and requirements in place to ensure that every worker understands that he or she has the right to bring up safety concerns, and those concerns will be reviewed and addressed.

“This is an integral part of our training program. We know that a safety-conscious work environment is the foundation of a safe nuclear facility.”

However, not all are convinced NFS is operating safely. Following the business portion of the meeting, the floor was opened to the public, and several used the opportunity to voice their concerns with the Erwin facility and the NRC’s oversight and results of its 2011 licensee performance review.

“You guys go on like ‘All the damage you’ve done to us for 56 years is OK now,’ ” Greene County resident Park Overall said to NRC officials.

Unicoi County resident Buzz Davies said NFS continues to have “failures” and there is inadequate control of the facility on NRC’s part. He also said he feels NFS’ processes lack independent feedback.

“There is no quality control feedback system existing at this plant,” Davies said to NRC officials. “You’ll never get control of it until you put that quality program in place.”

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