NRC inspectors can find themselves most anywhere in the United States, but one of the facilities we oversee is just down the street. The Center for Neutron Research, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is only about 20 minutes from our headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.
The Center is the largest research and test reactor we regulate, but large is a relative term – the Center’s reactor is 75 times smaller than the smallest U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. The reactor exists for only one purpose – to generate neutrons, pieces of atoms than can help researchers examine fantastically small details in many areas of science. The Center’s latest experiments have looked at materials that could improve oil and gas refining, and have examined biological cell wall behavior in real time.
As important a research tool as the Center is, it still has to operate safely. NRC inspectors check on the NIST facility at least twice annually to verify the reactor is operated safely and that only properly trained and licensed personnel run the reactor. Our ongoing reviews of the research reactor show that, even in the very unlikely case of the reactor’s systems failing during an accident, no effects are expected outside of the Center.
Security is another key factor in our oversight of the Center, and we inspect the facility’s security at least once every two years. NIST must follow our requirements to properly control access to the Center. Our security rules also keep fresh reactor fuel under strict control until it goes into the reactor, as well as keeping the reactor’s used fuel securely stored until it can be sent back to the Department of Energy.
Our security inspections at the Center show it has complied with the additional requirements the NRC imposed after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the Center has worked with other federal agencies to add security features that go beyond our requirements. The bottom line is that used fuel is highly radioactive, very difficult to handle safely by untrained people, and very strong measures are in place to protect the facility and the material.