September 30, 2011 / 12:25 AM / 8 years ago

GE nuclear fuel unit outlines changes to regulator

* Nuclear agency pinpoints management issues at fuel plant

* Global Nuclear to strengthen training programs

By Jim Brumm

WILMINGTON, N.C. - An executive of Global Nuclear Fuel agreed with regulatory criticism Thursday that a lack of organization oversight contributed to problems discovered in March at the company’s Wilmington fuel assembly plant.

Global Nuclear Chief Operating Officer Nichole Holmes said the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy operation is strengthening its training programs to address five performance issues the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has labeled “apparent violations,” during an enforcement conference in Atlanta Thursday.

The Wilmington facility, which assembles nuclear fuel for use in 40 boiling water reactors in the United States and Mexico, suspended fuel manufacturing operations this summer for about three weeks due to failure of warning horns to operate as designed. [ID:nN1E7771RY]

Global Nuclear is owned 60 percent by General Electric (GE.N) and 40 percent by Joint Fuel Co Ltd, a Hitachi-Toshiba joint venture.

The recent organizational issues came to light during an NRC inspection of Global Nuclear’s fuel assembly operation following a company report in March of a buildup of uranium dioxide powder in a grinding station filter.

In a June 29 letter to Global Nuclear, the NRC said the company’s root cause analysis adequately identified the cause of the buildup, “but did not explore the underlying latent organizational issues that allowed this event occur.”

The NRC determined there were two violations, called level IV — the least serious on the agency’s ranking system — resulting from problems of “management oversight, accountability, and enforcement of expectations.”

In its response in July, Global Nuclear Fuel admitted the violations and outlined corrective actions taken, telling the NRC, “full compliance has been achieved.”

Describing the company’s commitment to organization change, Holmes said the company is interviewing for a training leader and has hired a project manager to lead efforts in GE Hitachi’s process excellence program designed to enhance problem identification and simplify the safety process.

In a follow-up inspection report in September, the NRC described five new “unresolved” performance issues as “apparent violations.”

Scott Sparks, the NRC’s acting Region II safety officer, said Thursday’s pre-decisional enforcement conference was required for potential violations at a I, II or III severity level.

Such violations involve safety and have the potential of civil penalties, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.

Such conferences are the last step in the NRC’s investigation of a potential violation. (Editing by Eileen O’Grady and Richard Chang)

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