June 19, 2003
Safety Allegations Surrounding Nuclear Transport Containers Suggest Failure of NRC Quality Assurance Program
Groups Call for Investigation of Issues Raised by Former Exelon Employee
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two public interest groups today called for an investigation into allegations that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) failed to identify and appropriately respond to quality assurance violations by a lead manufacturer of nuclear waste transportation casks.
In a letter to the NRC’s Office of Inspector General, Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) requested an independent evaluation of the NRC’s quality assurance program in light of safety allegations brought by former Exelon employee, Oscar Shirani.
In July 2000, as an employee of Exelon, Shirani led a quality assurance audit of Holtec, a lead manufacturer of casks used to transport and store irradiated nuclear fuel, and its supplier, U.S. Tool & Die. Shirani uncovered nine quality assurance violations indicating that casks made by Holtec may not match the licensed design specifications. As a result, Holtec casks have indeterminate engineered safety margins, according to Shirani.
This means that casks loaded with nuclear fuel may not perform as expected under stress and strain, and under certain circumstances may not adequately contain radiation from high-level nuclear waste. Shirani questioned why NRC quality assurance auditors failed to identify these issues.
Holtec casks are currently used to store irradiated nuclear fuel at five sites in Illinois, Oregon, New York, Georgia and Washington.
Shirani, whose employment was subsequently terminated by Exelon, also alleges that the NRC failed to adequately address the safety issues he identified and that some of these issues remain unresolved. Shirani’s list of pending Holtec violations include welding violations, brittle materials, damaged neutron shielding and falsified quality assurance documents.
“The circumstances surrounding this audit, its findings and Mr. Shirani’s subsequent dismissal from Exelon point to a concerning breakdown in NRC’s quality assurance program and the agency’s oversight of industry quality assurance programs,” the groups wrote in a letter to the NRC’s Office of Inspector General.
These issues with respect to Holtec and its suppliers are particularly timely in light of the pending proposal by a consortium of nuclear utilities (Private Fuel Storage, L.L.C.) to transport unprecedented quantities of irradiated fuel to a proposed storage facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah using Holtec train casks. Private Fuel Storage would also use Holtec casks for storage at the Skull Valley site.
Separately, the NRC is proposing limited physical testing of a single Holtec cask as part of a program to test existing computer models used to evaluate transport cask license applications. The alleged holes in NRC quality assurance audits raise questions about the safety of the Private Fuel scheme and the validity of the NRC’s proposed cask tests.
The groups pointed to systemic concerns about the effectiveness of NRC quality assurance and oversight. Last year, NRC inspections failed to uncover severe corrosion at the Ohio Davis-Besse reactor, where an acid deposit ate a hole almost all the way through the stainless steel reactor vessel head.
“We believe that an investigation of this case is important to effective nuclear regulation and public safety,” they wrote.
To view the groups’ letter, click here.