Nuclear Fuel Facilities Prepare For Emergencies, Too

Michael Norris
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 fuelfacilitymapbe 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.

“Reporting for Duty” Means Being Fit For Duty

Melissa Ralph
Fitness For Duty Specialist

Watching over a nuclear reactor’s controls or supervising nuclear power plant maintenance are jobs that need a person’s full attention. Nuclear plant workers can’t perform properly if they’re overly tired, dealing with a medical concern or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For those reasons, the NRC has strict “fitness for duty” requirements so companies can spot impaired workers and keep them out of the plant.

Human factors were in the spotlight after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Afterward, we closely examined how human behavior affects nuclear plant safety. In 1989 the agency issued the first fitness for duty rules covering anyone with unescorted access to a nuclear plant, as well as workers whose duties affect safety, security or emergency preparedness.

drugsDrug and alcohol testing is the program’s most obvious feature. New hires are tested before they get access to the plant, and companies must also conduct random, unannounced drug and alcohol tests for workers. The tests must cover a specific minimum set of drugs (including marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines) and companies can expand the test for additional drugs.

The rules also say workers can’t drink alcohol for at least five hours before their shift, and blood alcohol concentrations as low as 0.02 constitute a “positive” test. (For comparison, driving while impaired in the United States requires a 0.08 blood alcohol level.)

Plants must also test on-duty workers if they seem impaired or are behaving oddly, and workers must report anyone they think is impaired to management. Workers who feel impaired from being too tired must report themselves.

Workers are automatically drug and alcohol tested and assessed for being overtired if they’re involved in an onsite accident or event possibly caused by human error. Plants also test workers when they’re working extended shifts. All of these multiple layers of testing help ensure plant workers are fit for duty.

Plants give the NRC information from all these tests regularly. Reviewing this information shows that most of the positive tests – two out of three – comes from pre-access testing. So these impaired individuals never get into the plant. In the other cases the worker’s access is promptly revoked.

What happens to a worker with a positive test? The first bans the worker from the site for at least 14 days; a second revokes the person’s access for five years. If the worker has a third positive test or tries to cheat on a drug test the person is permanent banned from access to the site. Workers who want to restore access after a first or second positive test must go into a treatment program and have follow-up tests.

In 2008, we updated NRC regulations to strengthen the drug and alcohol test requirements and to enhance how companies manage work hours to prevent worker fatigue. Since then, the overall positive test rates have remained steady at about 0.62 percent. Last year 179,135 tests spotted 1,114 cases where a worker was positive for either alcohol or a drug.

We continue to examine new information about fitness for duty, as well as improvements in testing technology. We’re working on proposed updates to our rules based on this information. You can read more about today’s fitness-for-duty requirements on our website.

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