Perils of New Nuclear Fuel: Part 1 – Browns Ferry’s Midnight Ride

April 14, 2015 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

Fission Stories #186

Much has been written about the perils of nuclear fuel when it resides in the core of a nuclear power reactor and later when it is spent fuel stored here, there and everywhere. But new nuclear fuel has proven problematic at times, too. This is the first of a quartet of stories about new fuel problems.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a reactor engineer at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Athens, Alabama. In those days, the reactor engineers also performed shift technical advisor (STA) duties. The STA role was mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as one of the Three Mile Island accident lessons learned. The STAs covered shifts 24/7, 365 days a year to provide technical support to the control room operators.

I began my shift that evening at 7 p.m. and would be relieved at 7 a.m. the following morning. My catching up on paperwork and routine monitoring was interrupted by a call around midnight from the Shift Engineer—the senior manager onsite when the plant manager was away. He told me a truckload of nuclear fuel was waiting for me at the gate.

Reactor engineers had responsibility for nuclear fuel. Its arrival had always been met by a small army:  craft workers to physically move it, health physics technicians to monitor it, security officers to guard it, quality control inspectors to ensure it was handled properly, and reactor engineers to verify we received what we’d ordered.

The stuff had never arrived unannounced, until that night. We were not expecting the delivery of new nuclear fuel, especially in the middle of the night and without the usual small army of workers to deal with it. As I walked out to the gate to meet the truck driver, I tried to figure out what to do with the stuff until the small army could be called in and assembled. Unfortunately, the walk wasn’t long enough for me to develop a plan, even a bad one.

As I approached the gate, I saw the trailer truck loaded with shipping boxes containing new nuclear fuel bundles sitting just outside it. I exited the personnel gate. The truck driver rushed up to me waiving the bill of lading for the shipment. He repeatedly apologized for arriving late, explaining that he had gotten lost and taken several hours to get straightened out. His anxiety was likely less due to being late as to about half a dozen armed security officers hovering nearby. Trucks just didn’t arrive at Browns Ferry in the middle of the night and this exception to the rule had captured security’s full attention.

The bill of lading showed that the new nuclear fuel was indeed to be delivered to a nuclear power plant in Alabama. But not here, not now. The shipping address showed the fuel was to have been delivered to the Joseph M. Farley nuclear plant outside Dothan, Alabama. The driver was still lost and quite a few miles from the right destination. After several minutes and consulting a road map for state, the driver climbed into his rig and drove away.

Later (or earlier since it was in the wee hours of the morning), I ran into the Shift Engineer in the control room. I explained the situation to him and told him the errant truck had left. He asked if we needed to report the event to the NRC. I reviewed the NRC’s reporting regulations. Because the new nuclear fuel was late but not lost, mis-directed but not stolen, and most importantly not ours, I recommended that we not report it to the NRC. Had it been our nuclear fuel that made a surprise visit to Farley, maybe we’d have to report it. But it was their fuel and their report to make.

Our Takeaway

If partial credit is given, at least the driver had the right state. And while the destination was wrong, the Browns Ferry nuclear plant was less wrong than had he tried to deliver the stuff to an elementary school or a K-Mart (even though this retail outlet featured “blue light specials” in those days.)

And even though new nuclear fuel, even in the wrong hands, represents little threat to humankind, it was a little disconcerting to think about a load of nuclear material wandering aimlessly along the highways and byways of Alabama.

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.