NFS issued violations by NRC
Nuclear material, criticality issues cited
  
By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin has been issued two Notices of Violation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for inadequate control over access to strategic nuclear material and for failure to conduct testing of its criticality detection and evacuation alarm system in March.
   According to a June 24 letter from David A. Ayers, chief of the NRC's Fuel Facilities Branch, to NFS President Dwight Ferguson, the notices were issued following an inspection conducted by the NRC senior resident inspector and region-based inspectors from April 14 through May 25.
   The violations are of concern because the first identified by the NRC concerned a procedural violation that should have been recognized by management, according to Ayres, and the second, although identified by NFS staff, was not entered into the company's EventTrac system until the NRC made the request.
   NFS has 30 days from receipt of the notification letter to issue a written response or explanation to the NRC.
   According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NFS's Physical Safeguards Plan requires certain measures to access to strategic special nuclear material. In part, the plan states that access to all highly enriched uranium containers having more than 50 grams of Uranium-235 shall be controlled through the use of tampersafe devices and locked cages except when in use and personally attended, or when inside processing equipment and hoods, with the exception of liquid waste in the laboratories.
   Contrary to the safeguard plan, on May 16, the NRC inspector observed weighing of materials received by NFS and the use and control of tampersafing seals. The material was placed in a temporary storage area within the material access area which was properly posted with nuclear criticality safety limits. However, the inspector noted that the material was neither locked nor personally attended and that the potential for diversion of nuclear material was increased due to construction activities in the immediate area.
   According to the NRC, NFS agreed that the regulation was not being followed but was slow to initiate corrective action.
   The NRC also noted that the required monthly test of NFS's criticality alarm system was not performed in March 2002 and that at least one individual unit was not checked, as is to be done monthly on a rotational basis.
   NFS identified the deficiency at the end of April and performed the missing test in May following the NRC inspection. However, the inspector noted that failure to perform the required test was not recorded in EventTrac, NFS's system for problem identification, corrective actions and resolutions, at the time it was identified.
   Prior and subsequent tests showed the system was operable, however, failure to record the deficiency was significant because the probability of establishing effective corrective action and preventing a recurrence was reduced, the NRC said.
   The facility was operated safely and in accordance with regulatory and license requirements with the exception of the two violations.
   The NRC found that gas cylinder storage was usually adequate, although the inspector observed one occasion where several cylinders were not adequately restrained.
   The NRC inspector also was able to observe NFS's fire brigade response during an incident May 13, when a small fire occurred in the area used for uranium recovery. The fire started when one of the heater mounts' neoprene insulation ignited. There was no special nuclear material involved and no criticality safety issues. NFS is conducting an investigation into the cause of the fire.
   According to NRC, the fire brigade responded in a timely and appropriate manner and command and control of the fire brigade was effective.
   The NRC also cited an Unresolved Item stemming from a March 3 investigation into an alarm in Area 500, during which NFS found a keyswitch in the disabled position. In this state, the switch disables the control that shuts down the vacuum pumps for the area during an alarm. The keyswitch had not been properly documented, according to the NRC, and was found only in an electrical diagram, so operators were unfamiliar with its function. The incident is under review.
   During review of selected environmental monitoring and sampling results for the year 2001, the NRC observed that radioactivity levels in Banner Spring Branch downstream sediment samples continued to be elevated, or greater than the action limit of 25 picocuries per gram, ranging from 38 to 73 pCi/gram for gross alpha activity.
   The elevated radioactivity levels were due to past processing and present onsite decommissioning activities, according to the NRC, which stated that NFS is aware of the contamination and has scheduled the area to be cleaned up as part of its North Site Decommissioning Project.
   In addition, the inspector noted that gross alpha activity levels were elevated in Martin Creek downstream sediment samples during First Quarter 2001 but returned to expected levels during the remainder of the year. Cause of the elevated results is still under investigation.
   The NRC also noted that gross beta radioactivity levels from vegetation sample locations in the Nolichucky River during Second Quarter 2001 were all elevated. However, analysis for specific radionuclides did not indicate the presence of licensed material used by NFS. The company indicated that approximately half of the radioactivity was due to the presence of naturally occurring Potassium-40. Future samples with elevated results will be monitored closely to ensure that no significant changes have occurred.
   The NRC has asked NFS to collect and split with them six onsite groundwater samples for later comparison. The Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education will perform the analysis for the NRC.
   The Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation have required NFS to clean up onsite groundwater to drinking water standards. The NRC has directing NFS to closely monitor the concentrations of radioactive contaminants in the groundwater.
   Sampling results for offsite groundwater monitoring wells have shown low levels of technetium-99, which the NRC says has been attributed to past operations, "probably uranium hexafluoride cylinder cleaning activities." Trace amounts of plutonium also have been found in selected offsite wells.
   "The reported data were near or below the detection level for the instruments used," the NRC said. NFS was unable to reach a definite conclusion on the origin of the reported plutonium, according to NRC.