Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that caused unprecedented damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan, the NRC began a special review of the U.S. facilities involved in the production of uranium and manufacture of fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants.
Our traditional approach to inspections involves confirming such facilities are complying with the license requirements the NRC established to ensure safety and security. Our approach for these inspections was a little different. These inspections were designed to confirm these facilities were capable of withstanding an unlikely but credible event such as an earthquake or tornado.
We determined only one facility was in need of changes to ensure safety and security prior to resuming operations. That plant was the Honeywell Uranium Conversion Facility, in Metropolis, Ill.
When presented with our inspection results, Honeywell agreed with our conclusions. Over the next year, the building where the uranium conversion process takes place was fortified — imagine really big steel beams. Also, the process equipment was modified by adding supports and an automatic shutdown system that immediately stops the operation if an earthquake occurs.
How simple and straightforward that description seems! Let me assure you it was far from that. First, Honeywell had to determine what forces the facility could be subjected to and then translate that into how strong the building and process equipment would need to be to withstand the event. Then, they had to figure out how to modify the plant, where to put additional supports and how those supports would be installed. They also had to design the automatic seismic shutdown system, and then actually do the work to install the changes.
For the regulatory oversight portion, we reviewed Honeywell’s analysis, and asked questions until we were satisfied the answers gave us the information we needed. We reviewed and inspected the modifications. We drew a path from the initiating event earthquake or tornado to what was actually installed in the facility to ensure the changes accomplished the design goals.
Our efforts crossed multiple organizational boundaries within the NRC as well as state and local agencies. It would take too much space to document all of those who contributed as it’s a lengthy list. After all this, last month we granted Honeywell authorization to restart the facility.
We all recognize the importance of our day-to-day efforts to ensure the safety and security of our nation’s nuclear facilities, and occasionally we embark on an activity that significantly improves the safety of a facility. This was one of those times.