NFS seeks better safety communication to workers

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   ERWIN -- Administrators of Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. believe they improved communication to workers and heightened oversight by management.
   NFS laid out new policies to officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the company's training center here on Tuesday during a meeting to discuss an agency review of the company's safety performance at its Erwin site.
   Officials from NRC's Region II office met with NFS administration to discuss the Licensee Performance Review to monitor activities at NFS from Jan. 20, 2003 through Jan. 23, 2004.
   In a letter to NFS President Kerry Schutt, NRC's Region II administration recommended improving communication of facility safety information to workers, and management oversight for selected processes.
   NRC review said incidents occurred during the evaluation period where certain safety controls were not fully understood by workers. Among those areas the review reported a detailed criticality safety analysis was not performed when changes to existing equipment and procedure changes were made in order to process licensed material.
   Jennifer Wheeler, director of NFS' internal safety program, said a new practice called Items Relied on For Safety (IROFS) communicated operating procedures to employees at their work sites, in classroom training and through engineering controls on equipment. Wheeler said IROFS included display tables attached to each standard operating procedure in specific plant areas detailing safety procedures and worst-case scenarios if safety measures were not followed.
   "They are getting a lot more focus in their training," said Wheeler of safety measures communicated to NFS employees. Changes made to the IROFS were managed and implemented by Wheeler and her staff.
   NFS vice president of safety and regulation, Marie Moore, said the company also sought to improve management oversight. She said company policy issued in January expected supervisors to monitor safety compliance and establish a "culture of compliance" within the departments they managed.
   The NRC review reported that approximately 25 grams of sample material identified as uranium metal shavings ignited inside of a glass vial after being shaken by an operator while a sample was being extracted. The report noted NFS had only focused on whether or not the material was pyrophoric, and had not utilized available industry experience and procedures on combustibility.
   While Moore contended the material was not pyrophoric - subject to ignite spontaneously without external stimulus - she acknowledged the material did "spark" during the reported event.
   "This caused a lot of concern," said Dan Rich, senior resident inspector at NFS, said after Tuesday's meeting, "because if the quantity was larger it possibly could have produced a combustion event."
   NRC officials cautioned the company that weighting management oversight did not discourage workers from identifying problems around the plant.
   "Right now, we don't have any problems with employees self-identifying problems," she said. "If we see a change where people aren't reporting things, we will make a change."
   In their comments to NFS officials, the NRC noted the company had "continued to operate the Erwin facility safely" during 2003. "Many changes have occurred at NFS in the past year," said Loren Plisco, NRC deputy regional administrator for Region II.
   Plisco said Region II had included the creation of a second resident inspector's position at NFS in its fiscal year 2005 budget. At a review meeting conducted by NRC Region II officials in February, the agency announced its intention of adding a second on-site inspector at NFS.
   The on-site inspector is designated to review the NFS compliance with NRC regulations pertaining to the company's licensing and operations of nuclear materials. NRC officials acknowledged in February that the company's growing operations - particularly the Blended Low Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Project - were an impetus to add the second inspector. Rich said Tuesday that he and the second inspector would divide overall monitoring at the Erwin site including activities connected to the BLEU Project facilities and operations.
   "We'll share the inspection duties," said Rich.
   Plisco said the company's measures to improve communication and oversight were positive in concept. He added the programs' success lay in meeting NRC compliance.
   "The general concern we had, was when they get information about precautions that should be taken with material, do those precautions get to the workers so they understand?" said Plisco. "That's the issue we were talking about."
   Following the performance review meeting, NRC and NFS officials held another meeting on issues declared proprietary. That meeting was closed to the public.