Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Nuclear safety compromised in US newbuild

US regulators have ignored expert safety advice in an attempt to cut corners and fast track the completion of a $4 billion nuclear fuel facility currently under construction near Aiken, South Carolina.

The accusation is reported in the September issue of The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE)'s The Chemical Engineer magazine. The technical reviewer said " I’ve never seen such a crazy system.”

Nuclear disarmament treaties have resulted in a large surplus of weapons-grade plutonium. The US government has initiated moves to build and operate a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOFFF) that will convert recovered plutonium into fuel rods for use in civil nuclear power generation.

However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has ‘hushed up’ a highly critical assessment of the plant’s engineering by its top independent reviewer according to Adam Duckett, a senior reporter on The Chemical Engineer.

The claims are made by Dan Tedder, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Tedder, who was hired by the NRC as an independent technical reviewer in April 2007, told The Chemical Engineer that basic chemical process design information was incomplete and presented serious safety implications.

“When they go operational there will be safety problems”, says Tedder. “The documentation provided in the license 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 – I’ve never seen such a crazy system.”

Whilst the NRC has refuted the accusations as “baseless”, it has refused access to the disputed documents on the grounds that they are designated ‘Proprietary or Official Use Only-Security Reacted Information’, a move that does little to allay concerns over the safety of the MOFFF plant.

The issue has highlighted the need for competent professional chemical engineers in the creation of new nuclear facilities, says IChemE’s director of policy, Andrew Furlong: “This unfortunate episode raises some serious questions. Tedder’s claim that basic information – including process flow diagrams and energy balances – is either flawed or incomplete deserves further scrutiny. It is critically important that chemical engineers working to the highest possible technical and professional standards are involved in every stage of the design and construction process.”

The Chemical Engineer

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