CHICAGO—U.S. uranium processing and fuel fabrication facilities are operating safely, according to a report released today by a special review team. The independent assessment, coordinated by the Nuclear Energy Institute, was requested by U.S. companies operating the facilities after last September’s radiation accident that resulted in the death of two nuclear fuel plant workers in Tokaimura, Japan.
Engineering and procedural safeguards for blending uranium fuel that would prevent an incident, such as the one at Tokaimura, are in place and used at the 10 nuclear fuel facilities operating in the United States, the report concludes. Members of the team today briefed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the findings of their seven-month project.
"The U.S. nuclear fuel industry is operating on the assumption that an accident can occur. This provides a sound basis for the continuing vigilance and the safe operating practices that we observed," said John C. Brons, a Nuclear Energy Institute executive who presented the report, entitled "Assessment of Nuclear Criticality Safety and Emergency Preparedness at U.S. Nuclear Fuel Plants," to the agency.
The review was conducted by Brons, special assistant to the president at NEI; independent consultant Robert M. Bernero, who was director of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards at the NRC; and James R. Clark, a JAI Corp. vice president with considerable operating experience in the nuclear fuel industry.
"Safety in operating fuel facilities is the industry’s overriding focus,” Brons said. “Workers at these facilities understand that they have the authority to stop plant processes for safety reasons."
All U.S. uranium processing and fuel fabrication facilities are regulated by the NRC. Brons said the review team "believes that these regulations and standards are observed and provide for fundamental criticality safety."
Employees at the Tokaimura, Japan, fuel facility triggered the criticality, or nuclear chain reaction, on Sept. 30, 1999, by pouring excessive amounts of a liquid form of highly enriched uranium into a mixer. Radiation from the ensuing chain reaction has killed the two employees who suffered the most severe radiation exposure; a third employee also was injured. Hundreds of others, including residents immediately surrounding the Tokaimura facility, were exposed to elevated levels of radiation, though not at levels that would cause physical harm.
One of the contributing factors to the Tokaimura accident was insufficient training of workers on the potential for criticality-particularly when handling uranium enriched to 18.8 percent presence of the fissionable U-235 isotope-and its consequences. Neither of the operators who died had worked with the material before.
The report noted that processes are in place at U.S. fuel facilities to ensure that workers are experienced before being assigned to work independently. The report identified several opportunities to improve worker training, however.
In other areas that contributed to the Tokaimura accident, the review showed much stronger performance at U.S. facilities.
The facilities covered by the review are the five low-enriched uranium fabrication facilities operated by ABB Combustion Engineering in Hematite, Mo.; Framatome Cogema near Lynchburg, Va.; Global Nuclear Fuels in Wilmington, N.C.; Siemens in Richland, Wash., and Westinghouse in Columbia, S.C. Also, the team reviewed two high-enriched uranium fuel facilities owned and operated by BWX Technologies at Lynchburg, Va., and Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tenn. Also covered are the two gaseous diffusion plants owned and operated by U.S. Enrichment Corp. at Paducah, Ky., and Piketon, Ohio, and the uranium conversion facility in Metropolis, Ill., owned and operated by Honeywell.
Each assessment consisted of an on-site visit of one and one half to two days, preceded by the team’s review of NRC inspection reports from the last two years. The review team focused on areas most important to criticality safety and emergency planning, including interviews with plant operators and other staff.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.