Nuclear Fuel Maker Resumes Production After Scathing Review

"The training wheels are off!" promised the admiral at the helm of a Tennessee company that has resumed production of nuclear fuel for the Navy after two incidents in 2009 shut the plant down.
Subsequent inspections turned up falsified inspection records and "multiple and repetitive performance issues."
Nuclear Fuel Services of Erwin, Tennessee has resumed four of five production lines manufacturing fuel for nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and commercial reactors, said Victor McCree, a regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, during a safety briefing before the full commission Friday. The fifth line is under review for resumption.
The NRC shut down the five production lines in January 2010, three months after an "unexpected chemical reaction" in the process that produces uranium-aluminum fuel, and two months after a fire in a glove box designed to allow workers to handle uranium solution safely.
Susbsequent inspections by NRC officials documented falsified inspections of fire dampers, inadequate management oversight, poor communication, dangerous production pressures, an inability to perform introspective evaluations and a "lack of a questioning attitude on the part of workers and management."
A June 2010 assessment found that dubious safety culture at the plant had improved only nominally since a prior inspection in 2007, but McCree reported Friday the plant is operating with due regard for public health and safety.
And there's a new sheriff in town. In January Admiral Joseph Henry took over presidency of the plant after 33 years in the Navy's nuclear fleet and after leading the Y12 National Security Complex, also in Tennessee, which produces enriched uranium for fuel and weapons.
In questioning Friday, NRC Commissioner George Apostolokis asked Admiral Henry how he would encourage a questioning attitude on the part of employees.
You don't criticize them for asking questions, Admiral Henry replied:
You always hear that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Yeah, there are some stupid questions, but you ought to stop, you ought to answer that question, and make them feel like they contributed, at every level, whether it’s my assistant or the lowest worker on the floor, and we’re continually reinforcing that. In fact, the employee of the month last year was recognized for stopping work because she didn’t understand something. And we put her picture on the front page of our newsletter and pointed out what she did and named her employee of the month for a questioning attitude.”
The NRC allowed the plant to resume production because workers have responded well to changes implemented by management, McCree said. But the agency focused on NFS during the hearing to keep it on the hot seat.
"What we need to see is continued, sustained improved performance, and that’s what we’re waiting for."
Adm. Henry promised commissioners that NFS has institutionalized improvements and will internalize them:
Commissioners the training wheels are off! We’re moving forward and we’re moving forward conservatively and deliberately. That’s not to say we won’t hit a bump in the road. But we hope that the processes, the training, and the behavioral expectations we’ve put in place will help us respond to those bumps correctly. We know it will take constant vigilance every day.
The plant is also facing review of its water emissions permit by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Nuclear Fuel Services is a subsidiary of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Operations Group, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia.

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