Nuclear Fuel Facilities Prepare For Emergencies, Too
November 14, 2013
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Operating Reactor Licensing Team Leader
Nuclear power plants need uranium-based fuel to run, and while the NRC doesn’t regulate mining of uranium ore, we do license and regulate the facilities that process uranium into reactor fuel.
While these fuel facilities don’t present the same concerns as a commercial power reactor, the NRC still requires them to plan for various types of events that might affect public health. All nuclear fuel facilities must be prepared for fires, natural events such as hurricanes, and emergencies involving other hazardous chemicals.
Facilities in the uranium conversion and enrichment process have to guard against a potential chemical hazard, not radioactive contamination. The uranium in these facilities is combined with fluorine, a very corrosive chemical. These plants’ emergency plans must be able to keep plant workers and the public safe if the uranium compound gets into the atmosphere.
Facilities that create the fuel pellets have to be concerned with unintentionally collecting too much enriched uranium in a small space and causing a small-scale nuclear reaction, called a criticality. These plants’ emergency plans must protect both plant staff and the public from the criticality’s radiation.
In their emergency plans, fuel facilities must address how they would respond to each of these potential accidents. They must describe the equipment that would be used, the responsibilities of various personnel, and how offsite response organizations would be notified in an emergency.
In addition, fuel facilities must also participate in exercises to practice their response to simulated emergencies and indicate how they will train their employees to respond to emergency situations. The NRC reviews and inspects each site’s emergency plan to make sure it meets federal requirements to adequately handle the types of emergencies that could happen at fuel facilities.