Weapons-grade allegations

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Expert accuses US Nuclear Regulatory Commission of shunning safe practice and hushing-up his independent guidance

THE accusation: "They refused to forward my questions to the applicant. They want[ed] me to water things down [and didn't] want me to criticise. I was not allowed to provide independent review." In this case 'they' is the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the 'applicant' is Shaw Areva Mox Services (SAMS), and the disgruntled tce quotee is Daniel Tedder, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, US.

Now, when someone says the words 'nuclear regulation' the last thing you want to hear in the same context are phrases such as 'independent in name only' 'watered down' or 'conflict of interest: But Tedder says this is the case. Tedder believes he was hushed-up and forced out of the NRC. He accuses them of contravening their own guidance and backing a poorly-planned nuclear facility that could be unsafe as a result, just to keep costs down and meet deadlines. The NRC strenuously denies his claims.

the facility
In 2000, to dispose of their huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the US and Russian governments signed the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, whereby each country will transparently dispose of 34 t of weapons-grade plutonium. The US government contracted SAMS to build and operate a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOFFF) near Aiken, South Carolina, which will convert the plutonium to fuel rods for use in civilian energy generation.

Tedder was hired by the NRC as an independent technical reviewer. "I was told that I was the best-qualified person they could find." And his OJ supports the claim. Before serving as the NRC's senior chemical process engineer, Tedder spent 30 years as a consultant to the nuclear industry and served as national committee chairman of the US department of energy's independent review group for transuranic waste management program

the job
Tedder's role at the NRC began in April 2007. Things started to go wrong when he requested MOFFF's basic design information, he says. "I was told they don't have it," he recounts. "Instead, the NRC gave me incomplete process flow diagrams (PFDs) and material and energy balances (MEBs)."

"I was shocked; I've taught chemical process design and the first thing you do is develop PFDs and MEBs. Using this information you develop a major equipment list and proceed to size all your equipment. Then you can do cost estimation. Tedder says he told his superiors that if his students had submitted this information as part of a chemical process design project they wouldn't get a passing grade. "Needless to say that did not endear me with management."

NRC spokesperson Dave McIntyre denies this.  PFDs and MEBs were provided to the chemical process safety review team via the license application, he says: "Tedder was a member of this review team. The NRC is currently reviewing the adequacy of this information; it's in its early stages."

the specifics and the implications
Tedder says his impression is that the $4b MOFFF facility is being "thrown together" He cites the Regulatory guide 3.7: Monitoring of combustible gases and vapours in plutonium processing and fuel fabrication plants, which advises that monitors should be used to establish safe operating conditions in any areas where combustible gas mixtures form. Tedder claims that Areva's application documentation hasn't taken into account that the plutonium will radiolyticly produce hydrogen. "I said SAMS is supposed to provide real time monitoring but management told me they're just suggestions. The NRC is ignoring its own guidance."

Tedder says this is just the tip of the iceberg. "The piping and instrumentation diagrams use the analysis same stream numbers over and over again - I've never seen such a crazy system." tce was unable to verify these claims as the NRC says: "The PFOs and EMBs are designated proprietary or Official Use Only Security Related Information. As such, they are not publicly available."

Tedder explains the implications: "When they go operational there'll be safety problems. Or they'll be in there with jackhammers tearing things out and rebuilding."

the resignation and the reason
Tedder resigned from the NRC in March 2008. He says he jumped before he was pushed for asking too many questions: "The NRC didn't want me to criticise the applicant and refused to forward my questions or request more information. They harassed me about my reports and wanted me to water them down. They wanted me to write down and sign off on what the NRC thought was correct. I was an independent reviewer in name only." tce asked Tedder why he thought the NRC would choose a course that appears to conflict directly with its sole purpose.

The NRC has been criticised in the past for holding projects up," he says. "Members of Congress threatened to cut its funding. So it started giving managers bonuses for getting things done on time. That's a clear conflict of interest."

NRC spokesperson Dave McIntyre counters: "The accusation is baseless. The NRC places a higher premium on its mission of protecting public health and safety, and allegations that we have 'greenlighted' the project or ignored significant safety concerns are unfounded."

Tedder sticks to his guns: "The documentation SAMS provided in their licence application is very superficial and lacks the type of technical depth I would expect. It isn't consistent with reasonable and generally-accepted good engineering practice."

the remainder
Despite Tedder's claims against the NRC and McIntyre's statement that MOFFF plans are still under review, SAMS is in the process of constructing the facility. On 1 August the US National Nuclear Security Administration reported that 80"10 of the reinforced steel and concrete foundations are laid and the nuclear processing tanks have been ordered.

Paul Haigh, chair of the steering committee for ChernE's nuclear technology SG, says he is neither disturbed not surprised that the project is going ahead: "It is common practice to proceed with ground works and the procurement of long lead ti me items whilst flow sheeting and safety case approval is soug ht. In short I see no regulatory or safety problems - merely a commercial risk."

Meanwhile, the NRC warned SAMS president David Stinson on 29 July that some MOFFF construction activities violate regulations. For example, there are issues with the quality of concrete: a cold joint has formed in the basemat concrete placement and foreign material left in the construction joints is "voiding behind the stay forms."

AMS has 30 days to respond and suggest how to correct the problem.


Posted in |
F. Yáñez (not verified) Says:
Fri, 2008-10-17 15:54

Great chemical engineer(ing work). It happens in many areas to many people. Do not submmit to over seeing Specifications in favour of economics or deadlines.