NEW ELLENTON — Acclimating workers to a strict “nuclear culture” and procuring materials that meet nuclear construction standards are among the challenges facing the company building the government’s $4.8 billion mixed-oxide fuel project at Savannah River Site.
“We’re not building a Walmart or a Kmart out there. We’re building a high-precision nuclear plant,” said Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, during a status briefing Tuesday before U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers.
The MOX plant is designed to dispose of surplus plutonium from dismantled nuclear bombs by blending it into fuel rods suitable for commercial power reactors.
The project remains on schedule for completion in 2016, Trice said, but has encountered some of the same challenges facing utilities building the first commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. in almost 30 years.
Since the MOX project began almost five years ago, quality control issues have emerged several times, first with faulty rebar in 2007, then studs and couplers and – most recently – substandard steel piping.
The piping, he added, was identified before being installed, and remains boxed up at the site.
“We proactively caught it, using our own process,” he said. “We didn’t learn about it due to a failure in the field.”
With more than 400 separate entities manufacturing components for the specialized plant, including some in foreign countries, the company has continually enlarged its inspection staff. Currently, Trice told NRC staffers, about 130 workers are assigned to quality assurance in vendor materials.
The company also has a rigorous, on-site testing protocol for construction materials.
“Part of what we do is to take a commonly available material, and then prove it’s suitable for nuclear construction,” he said.
Educating thousands of employees, most of whom are involved in nuclear construction for the first time, about the meticulous standards and record keeping required at the site has also been a challenge, he said.
“We’re having to teach people the nuclear culture,” he said.
Despite the challenges, the project has proceeded safely, with a recent milestone that included 10 million work-hours without a lost time injury and the NRC’s most recent quarterly inspection report finding no regulatory violations.