NRC identifies strengths, shortcomings at NFS

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission converged on Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin Tuesday to discuss the company's safety performance over the past year. The 8:30 a.m. meeting was open to members of the public, however, few were in attendance, possibly because they were busy going about their own work schedules.
   NRC's performance review encompassed a period from Jan. 14, 2001, to Feb. 16, 2002. Overall, the NRC found that NFS had significantly improved in several areas, but noted deficiencies in areas of radiological contamination controls, testing and maintenance of electrical systems, and implementation of procedures.
   The NRC challenged NFS to maintain management focus on quality, safety and safeguards of existing operations and decommissioning while implementing plans for downblending highly enriched uranium into fuel for Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants as well as a new production line for U.S. Navy fuel.
   NFS was commended for its comprehensive response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and effective training of its emergency response organization and fire suppression efforts.
   Douglas Collins, director of Nuclear Materials Safety for NRC's Region II in Atlanta, said one area needing improvement was in implementation of the contamination program for workers.
   "They have a system in the plant where the radioactive material they process is contained inside gloveboxes and hoods so that the material will not spread and will be controlled. There are processes on the way out of the plant where people are surveyed to verify that, in fact, the controls are effective."
   However, Collins said, in some areas there were instances where the NRC observed workers conducting radiological surveys which were not in accordance with procedures and, therefore, they could have missed contamination.
   "We had instances where they didn't survey thoroughly enough to get all of the contamination and there was one instance where an individual did leave the area with contamination on them," he said.
   Although NFS routinely surveys inside the plant to ensure that radiation monitoring controls are working, the federal agency did find instances where contamination was present above the action level and was not cleaned up in a timely manner.
   "None of those really resulted in a significant dose to a worker or contamination getting in the public domain ... But our system is one of defense and depth and some of the defense lines weren't as effective as they should have been," Collins said.
   NFS measures radiation exposure to workers through bioassay tests which involve taking urine and sometimes fecal samples. In addition, air samples are pulled from work areas to determine the levels of radioactive material present. If there's a high bioassay result from an individual, NFS will conduct an investigation, Collins said.
   "There was one instance last year when they did an investigation and found that an individual had contamination on them," he said. The employee worked in a major fuel production area.
   "Here, most of what they process is uranium. ... It would take a substantial amount of uranium to cause a dose to the skin to be of anything approaching harmful levels. The idea is to keep contamination from entering the body. In this instance, there was at least one individual who did not identify that contamination on them when they left."
   NFS workers wear badges designed to detect gamma and beta radiation from external sources, however, the company typically deals with alpha radiation.
   Marie Moore, vice president of Safety and Regulatory Management for NFS, said the badge worn by the worker who went home with residual contamination did not detect gamma radiation "and it wouldn't have because we don't typically work with gamma radiation. ... It wasn't an airborne type incident."
   Once the exposed worker was identified, "We surveyed her car, we surveyed her house, and we didn't find anything above limits. So what she had was 'fixed contamination.' It wasn't anything that would just wipe off. You have to take water to get it off of you."
   Collins said the woman submitted a bioassay sample and went home and the sample came back high. "When the person came back [to work], they did a survey of the individual and found some residual contamination. ... It did point to the need for retraining of the people on how to do the surveys, what to do when [they] identify contamination on an individual, and how to get the contamination off," he said.
   Tony Treadway, media spokesman for NFS, said that while there are significant safeguards in place to prevent such incidents from happening, "part of the responsibility goes with employees as well as the company. ... That employee, once it was identified, was taken immediately to medical personnel [who found] there was no internal impact ... That particular employee was decontaminated [and] has been monitored multiple times and she's back at work with no impact."
   Moore said the incident was out of the norm and that NFS "actually went out on the floor and did all kinds of surveys ... and we could not identify the source of what happened."
   Collins said the NRC also will be focusing more attention on NFS's electrical system. "If the electrical service is unreliable or if there are failures, some of the safety systems would not necessarily be available," he said.
   For example, the criticality alarm system which alerts workers to accidents and potential releases of radiation requires power to operate, he said. "If there are problems with the electrical system, "You might get a criticality alarm when there is no criticality, and everybody runs.
   "If the power goes off, typically the alarm goes off. They stop moving the material, stop processing, all of the process equipment fails -- in a way that is safe, but again, you want to minimize challenges to the safety system and electrical disturbances are, in fact, challenges to the system. There were a couple of instances where the criticality alarms went off because of the electrical disruptions and people left the facility, like they were supposed to," he said. "But we and the licensee want to minimize false alarms because you want people to pay attention to them."
   Moore said NFS rarely has false criticality alarms but when it does happen, "everybody is trained to evacuate, no matter what."
   NFS is looking at replacing its criticality alarm system with an upgraded, state-of-the-art system, she said. Now, the way the criticality system works, "just a power surge can set it off," she said.