NRC Issues Confirmatory Order on Unplanned Reactor Shutdown in Maryland

August 22, 2022 by Dan McCue
NRC Issues Confirmatory Order on Unplanned Reactor Shutdown in Maryland
The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Center for Neutron Research, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (NIST photo)

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a Confirmatory Order to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for violating requirements that led to the unplanned shutdown of a research reactor at the facility in February 2021.

According to the NRC, the event resulted in damage to a reactor fuel element without affecting public health and safety.

The institute said a single fuel element overheated and was damaged because it was not securely latched into place within the research reactor.

Upon review of the incident, regulatory officials concluded there were seven violations, including five violations related to exceeding the fuel cladding temperature safety limit and damaging a fuel element. 

Other violations were related to emergency planning and equipment modification.

As is its practice, the agency offered the National Institute a mediated settlement through the agency’s alternative dispute resolution process. 

Under the terms of the settlement, NIST committed to several actions, including enhancing its training for fuel-handling procedures and related management activities; enhancing its safety culture program; enhancing reactor facility operations staff and management; enhancing its corrective action program and operational procedures; and enhancing the reactor facility’s emergency response resources and procedures.

As a result of those commitments, the NRC agreed to eliminate a financial civil penalt for the violations.

“All of us at NIST are committed to undertaking the comprehensive corrective actions that will ensure a strong safety culture at the NCNR and prevent something like this from happening again,” said Laurie E. Locascio, under secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director, in a written statement on the institute’s website. 

“We appreciate the NRC’s engagement with NIST, and we have already made many changes and improvements so that this important national resource can return to safe operation,” Locascio said.

The institute has agreed to contract with a third-party, independent nuclear consultant to conduct an assessment of the NCNR’s safety culture. The consultant will also help the NCNR implement any recommendations and corrective actions identified in the assessment. The process for identifying a contractor has already begun. 

As for the research reactor, it  remains shut down while the NRC considers NIST’s separate request to restart. 

In addition to NIST’s internal response and investigation into this event, NIST invited four outside experts to review the NIST analyses and planned corrective actions, as well as the organizational response, and to provide recommendations. 

Their individual reports can be found on the NIST website.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
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