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The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has proposed a $70,000 civil penalty for Urenco USA for two violations of agency requirements related to improperly implementing safety controls at its Eunice, New Mexico, enrichment plant.

The first violation occurred during a March 2022 event when plant staff found three construction vehicles parked near a building that handles uranium hexafluoride without physical barriers in place. The company notified NRC as required and the agency launched a special inspection in response and documented its findings.

The second violation occurred during a June 2022 event when plant management observed an employee not following established safety procedures for trucks entering an area near a building containing uranium hexafluoride cylinders. The company notified NRC and the agency conducted a follow-up inspection in August 2022. During that inspection, NRC inspectors found that Urenco USA failed to implement adequate safety measures during both incidents.

Specifically, the company did not take enough precautions to prevent a potential accident sequence involving construction vehicles damaging the facility or the uranium hexafluoride inside – increasing the risk to plant workers and the public. Urenco USA was notified of the apparent violations in December 2022 and in a written response admitted the violations, and discussed plans for corrective actions. NRC said it had reviewed Urenco USA’s response and determined that, while the incidents did not result in the release of radioactive material, the potential safety consequences warrant the proposed fine. The company has 30 days to pay the proposed penalty or contest it. The NRC will consider any response from the company before making a final determination on the matter.

Urenco’s activities in the USA date back to 1992, when the Treaty of Washington paved the way for its centrifuge technology to be deployed in the United States. The company originally planned to operate in the state of Louisiana, but because of more positive community support, the National Enrichment Facility was built in Eunice, New Mexico. However, because of the original plan, the official licensee is Louisiana Energy Services while the business name is UUSA.

This was the first new nuclear project in the USA in almost 30 years. The $5bn facility was one of the largest construction projects in the state of New Mexico. It was the first project to be issued a combined construction & operating licence by NRC. Construction began in 2006 and was completed in three phases. The site began producing enriched uranium in June 2010 and the first customer delivery was completed in March 2012. The plant currently has 64 cascades online and produces about 5M SWU a year, which is sufficient capacity to meet approximately one-third of the annual US demand.

Image: Urenco USA's enrichment plant in Eunice, New Mexico, USA (courtesy of Urenco)

Date: Saturday, 08 April 2023
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