NRC Joins Five Other Agencies in Addressing Uranium Contamination on the Navajo Nation

Dominick Orlando
Senior Project Manager

 

Navajo coverLast year, after five years of work to reduce risks from uranium contamination on territory that is part of the Navajo Nation, the NRC, along with four other federal agencies, reported on our progress to Congress. This week, the five federal agencies issued a plan that spells out how we’ll continue coordinating that work for the next five years.

 The agencies’ second Five-Year Plan builds on lessons learned from the first five years. It reflects new information and defines the next steps to address the most significant risks to human health and the environment. The new plan commits us to working together to reduce these risks and find long-term solutions.

 In October 2007, Congress asked the agencies to develop a plan to address the contamination on Navajo land, which dates back to the 1940s when uranium was in high demand. The Navajo Nation had large uranium deposits but regulations were not what they are today and mining companies left extensive contamination requiring cleanup. Legislation and new regulatory provisions were put in place to address these issues.

 The 2013 report capped off a five-year program the agencies conducted, in consultation with Navajo and Hopi tribal officials, to address uranium contamination on their land. Part of this work was government-to-government consultations with the Navajo.

 The program was a joint effort among EPA, the NRC, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Centers for Disease Control and the Indian Health Service. It focused on collecting data, identifying the most imminent risks, and addressing contaminated structures, water supplies, mills, dumps, and mines with the highest levels of radiation. We also learned more about the scope of the problem and the work that still remains.

 The NRC’s role is to oversee the work done by DOE, which is the long-term custodian for three sites storing uranium mill tailings—a sandy waste left over from processing uranium—and one former processing site. We do that by reviewing and, if acceptable, concurring on DOE’s plans to clean up contaminated groundwater, visiting the sites to evaluate how DOE is performing long-term care activities, and reviewing DOE’s performance and environmental reports.

 We will work closely with EPA, DOE, the New Mexico Environment Department, and the Navajo during the cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock site—which EPA and Navajo officials identified as the highest priority site for cleanup. The NRC will also be part of outreach activities detailed in the plan, including participating in stakeholder workshops and contributing, as appropriate, to educational and public information activities.

 Five years from now, we look forward to being able to say that with close coordination among all the parties, we have continued to make major progress in addressing concerns about uranium contamination.

Checking the Links in the Nuclear Supply Chain

Mary Anderson
Vendor Inspector
Office of New Reactors

 

The NRC’s focus on nuclear power plant safety doesn’t stop at the plants. Since the 1970s (at that time under the Atomic Energy Commission), NRC inspectors have kept a watch on the companies that provide safety-related components and services to U.S. plants.

 magnifyingglassThe agency believes plants and vendors have effective quality assurance programs in place to proactively prevent the use of counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. These programs include careful supplier selections, effective oversight of sub-suppliers, and the authority to challenge a part’s “pedigree” when necessary. 

The NRC oversees these quality activities by inspecting nuclear power plants and their vendors. Vendor inspection can include site visits to production facilities. We create and share information and guidance for the nuclear industry to improve detection of counterfeit and fraudulently marketed products. We also incorporate this information into our inspection programs. The NRC has yet to see any instance of these items in safety-related systems in U.S. plants, but constant vigilance by the licensees and the NRC is essential to make sure it stays that way.

 These days our Vendor Inspection Center of Expertise operates out of the Office of New Reactors to cover both operating reactors and those under construction. NRC staff experts inspect vendors, and observe when plants audit their suppliers, to determine if the plants are properly overseeing their supply chain. Importantly, the NRC also verifies that the plants and their vendors comply with our quality assurance criteria and our “Part 21” requirements for reporting defects and noncompliance, as well as applicable codes and standards.

 The center’s staff also inspect companies applying for design certificates, early site permits or combined licenses. We check on whether the applicants have effective quality assurance processes and procedures for activities related to their applications.

 Right now, we’re working on several vendor-related issues, including evaluating the industry’s process for safely upgrading commercial products that aren’t specifically made for nuclear applications to be used in some plant systems. Common items such as gaskets, nuts and bolts, and electrical relays could be acceptable for nuclear plant use, for example.

 We’re updating and simplifying Part 21, the NRC regulation that covers counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items. We’re also confirming effective controls are in place to prevent such items from making their way into the U.S. safety-system supply chain. We’re clarifying the processes for evaluating and reporting defects, and the acceptance criteria for off-the-shelf commercial products. The Center is developing regulatory guides so plants and vendors better understand these processes.

 The NRC’s vendor workshop in Portland, Ore., gave us a forum to put this issue in the spotlight. Among a range of vendor topics, this year’s workshop included an industry perspective on counterfeit, fraudulent, and suspect items.

 The NRC has also been actively involved with our international partners to address the risk of counterfeit and fraudulent items. We’ve collaborated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency to share best practices and recommend options to strengthen inspection programs and increase information sharing.