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Group urges suspension of license process for new Fermi nuclear plant

By Eartha Jane Melzer, Michigan Messenger 1/12/10 11:00 AM

Environmental groups that have been seeking to block construction of the Fermi 3 nuclear reactor planned by DTE Energy have asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) to suspend licensing activity for the plant because of quality assurance problems identified by the NRC.

According to the NRC, quality assurance (QA) comprises all planned and systematic actions that are necessary to provide adequate confidence that a structure, system, or component will perform satisfactorily in service. Attributes of a QA program include procedures, recordkeeping, inspections, corrective actions, and audits.

In August, during its first inspection of Fermi 3's quality assurance program, the NRC identified multiple problems.

In an Oct. 5 notice of violation the NRC informed DTE that the company has been in violation of safety rules since 2007 when it hired engineering company Black & Veatch to conduct work in support of its application and to oversee its own work.

DTE also failed to complete any audits of the quality assurance activities of its contractor and failed to document any work it had done to identify safety issues since beginning the Fermi project in March 2007, NRC stated.

"The NRC concluded that the failure to establish a Fermi 3 QA program resulted in inadequate control of procurement documents and ineffective control of contract services performed by Black and Veatch (B&V)," the agency wrote.

"That's like having the inmates running the prison," said Arnie Gundersen, nuclear engineer and former nuclear industry executive, who testified in support of the recent ASLB filing by the coalition that includes Beyond Nuclear, Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination, Citizens Environmental Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, Don't Waste Michigan, and the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.

"I worked on 70 nuclear plants," said Gundersen, now chief engineer at the nuclear consulting group Fairewinds Associates, "and my experience is the moment a company decides to build a plant they implement a quality assurance program and Fermi didn't do that. Fermi has no quality assurance program."

Gundersen said that the lack of a quality assurance system calls into question all of the work that went into the Combine Operating License Application that DTE filed in September 2008.

This document was supposed to show how the new General Electric-Hitachi boiling water reactor could operate safely at the Fermi generating complex in Monroe County, and it relied on contractor analysis of seismic and hydrological data about the proposed site.

Gundersen said that much of the engineering work and analysis that went into the application should be redone.

"You have no assurance that is was done right because the people doing the work were also overseeing the work."

In November, DTE responded to NRC's notice of violation by disagreeing that any quality assurance problems had occurred.

"[DTE] does acknowledge the constructive insights resulting from the cited review of the Fermi 3 QA program by the NRC and corrective steps have been taken or will be taken to address the concerns noted in the Notice of Violation and to assure that all COLA activities continue to be conducted at a level of quality necessary to support future safety related activities," the utility stated.

DTE stated that though NRC rules require that license applicants implement quality assurance programs, the company should only be considered an "applicant" after Sept. 18, 2008, when it filed its application. The company went on to state that even if it was required to have a quality assurance program before presenting a proposal to build a new reactor, it had fulfilled this responsibility by delegating it to its contractor Black & Veach.

NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said that commission is formulating its response to this communication.

Focus on quality assurance problems can benefit both the company and taxpayers, said Michael Keegan of Don't Waste Michigan, who lives near the Fermi complex.

"Shoddy work is going to come back and haunt them," he said, "We are actually doing them a favor by helping them catch this early."

Failure to identify problems can derail a project, he said, and since nuclear plants are supported by billions of dollars in publicly funded loan guarantees, when a project fails, taxpayers have to pay for it.

Keegan said that quality assurance problems associated with development of Fermi 3 go far beyond DTE's failure to monitor the preliminary work on the plant.

On Nov. 12, the NRC issued a notice of violation to General Electric-Hitachi for failing to observe quality assurance protocols while developing the boiling water reactor that DTE plans to use at Fermi 3.

In that case the NRC inspection team focused its inspection on the radiation shielding calculations and associated codes that General Electric-Hitachi used in the development of the reactor design.

Keegan pointed out the that the recent NRC action on quality assurance problems came as the agency's Office of Inspector General prepared a report that criticized NRC oversight of quality assurance programs at the nation's nuclear plants.

That report, which was released on Nov. 16, found that NRC staff cannot verify that quality assurance regulations are being followed by nuclear plant developers. The OIG also found that "NRC and its new nuclear power plant applicants and licensees could be relying on inaccurate translations... the accuracy of translated documents used for design, construction, and operation of new nuclear power plants could be called into question."

"This latter point is especially relevant at Fermi 3, given Hitachi of Japan's primary involvement in designing the [reactor] and the likely role of Japan Steel Works in manufacturing Fermi 3's reactor pressure vessel and other large nuclear components," the environmental coalition stated group stated.

As they ask the ASLB to suspend consideration of Fermi's license application, the groups are arguing that until NRC itself is competent at oversight, there can be no meaningful safety review of quality assurance on the Fermi 3 reactor's design, construction, and operation.

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