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Monday, February 4, 2013

Feds nab Reed in "more than minor" nuke safety violation

College kids running a nuclear reactor -- what could go wrong? Well, at Reed College in southeast Portland, they're finding out. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has written the college's toy reactor operators up for three safety violations, including one major one -- allegedly putting more fuel in the reactor than they were allowed to:

[F]rom February 2 to 4, 2011, the licensee made a change to the facility as described in the safety analysis report without conducting an evaluation to determine whether or not the change should have required a license amendment. Specifically, the licensee added 15 more fuel elements to the reactor core in addition to those already installed, for a total of 79 elements, thus changing the core configuration. The licensee did not perform an evaluation of the change against the criteria in 10 CFR 50.59(c)(2) to determine if the change should have required a license amendment.

This has been determined to be a Severity Level IV violation (Section 6.1).

The letter from the NRC elaborates:

The violation is being cited in the Notice because it constitutes the failure to meet a regulatory requirement that has more than minor safety significance and it was identified by the NRC.

Steve Frantz, the head of the reactor operation at Reed, retired on June 30, 2011. We wonder whether this little misadventure had anything to do with it.

In addition, based on the results of this inspection, the NRC has determined that two other Severity Level IV violations of NRC requirements occurred. These violations are being treated as non-cited violations (NCVs), consistent with Section 2.3.2.b of the Enforcement Policy.

We wrote about one of these other two incidents here -- the reactor was run with one of its power measuring channels malfunctioning. In the other, one of the young folks running the reactor walked off and left his or her key in the ignition:

At approximately 12:20 p.m., on February 6, 2012, the RO [reactor operator] at the console was finishing the core excess calculations. When that task was finished, the RO informed the SRO [senior reactor operator] then he would be shutting down the reactor. The RO then proceeded to drive in the rods until they were fully inserted. The RO informed the SRO that the reactor was shut down and left the control room and reactor bay area. When the RO left the control room, he neglected to remove the key from the console.

At approximately 1:35 p.m., the Facility Director and the Associate Director came to the facility and noticed that the blue light in the hallway of the facility was illuminated, indicating that the reactor was “on” and the key was in the console and set in the "operate" position. When they entered the Control Room they found that no one was in the room and that, indeed, the reactor key was still in the console. The Associate Director immediately removed the key from the console and secured it.

The licensee investigated the event and determined that the key had apparently been left in the console for 75 minutes before the condition was discovered due to an oversight by the RO.

The Reed reactor is 44 years old. It was built for another time and world. Obviously, it's become quite a handful to keep tabs on. Even if Il Presidente of the college succeeds in getting the bongs out of sight, he ought to think about phasing the nuke operation out before something really bad happens.

Comments (9)

You don't get it. Anything to do with Reed is cool. Anything to do with fossil fuels is uncool and despicable (unless part of Reed College). You need a new scorecard as double standards, even multiple standards, are in; as accounting and mathematics are not the new math, babe. Old folks. Geez, they need reprogramming, or to be shacked up in retirement condos. Cool kids are driving the bus now.

Reed would be even cooler if they packed up and moved to the Pearl District. Just think, you could live in a condo just upstairs from a real working nuclear reactor for research purposes, but it's good nuclear because it doesn't generate electricity.

But since they're in SE, they aren't cool. At least not as cool as PSU.

I've never been someone to be afraid of nuclear physics as long as safety regulations are being observed at all times.

That being said, these violations should be enough to suspend Reed's operating license; and if their license is not suspended, then the NRC is just as much of a laughing stock as a lot of people around here think it is. Leaving the reactor in an operational state (even if the control rods are fully inserted) and then leaving the control room is about as stupid as cleaning a loaded gun. Adding extra fuel elements outside of your license is similarly stupid, and should have the whole damn program shut down.

Leave the operations of a research reactor to institutions that can actually exercise some kind of oversight and control, like the nuclear engineering program at OSU. This is not something that can tolerate half-assed control.

Homer Simpson would be SOOO very proud! And really I never go to SE PDX
if it were irradiated for a few thousand years, I won't mind. Good Lord, Shut It Down. They have proven themselves incompetent and utterly dangerous to the students and the people of Portland.

"The Reed reactor is 44 years old. It was built for another time and world. Obviously, it's become quite a handful to keep tabs on. Even if Il Presidente of the college succeeds in getting the bongs out of sight, he ought to think about phasing the nuke operation out before something really bad happens."

The problem is, who then pays for the cleanup? Reason enough for Reed to kick the can down the road...

I have heard that before Hatfield retired, he offered Reed enough Federal money to pay for the cleanup. Of course, Reed would have to shut the reactor down, so the cleanup would start while Hatfield was still in office.

Reed turned Hatfield down.

It's not accidental that (at least commercial, at least those my uncle worked for) nuclear power plants use Homer Simpson on their safety posters.

If someone really wants to go for broke, they could plunk it down in SoWa, right by the OHSU "health and wellness" building -- where the old TCI/ATT/Comcast building was. It was known in the company for the incredibly high number of cancer deaths among long time employees. Why not go for broke?

> Leave the operations of a research reactor to institutions that can actually exercise some kind of oversight and control

I'm not sure that any university can do this. In 2003, the operator at MIT's reactor -- which has a serious nuclear engineering program -- fell asleep for half an hour at the console -- while the reactor was operating at nearly 5 megawatts! http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML0319/ML031970382.pdf

More significantly, the fact that they did not shut themselves down for a significant period of retraining and operator requalification means that the program self-monitoring capacity is broken.

Evidence for which is given further by the fact that they do not use procedures to avoid the brain-dead errors (leaving the keys in, not completing the shutdown checklist) that humans are prone to make.

Worse, changing the core physics without an approved experimental plan that had been thoroughly analyzed to ensure that they remained well within the safety envelope, is appalling. Just adds fuel to the fire, so to speak.

Time to pull their ticket and defuel them. Period. There is no benefit to science or engineering to allowing this.

The world is now on notice that nuclear safety at Reed is a matter of chance and luck (which always runs out), rather than the outcome of a program that is capable of conducting safe evolutions with positive control.

Time for Reed to be a nuclear free zone. Now.

. . . . . Reed turned Hatfield down.

There must have been serious problems way back then, and it hasn't been cleaned up
or shut down yet?

What is wrong with people here?
The city of denial?
In so many ways!

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