MN Nuke Weld Tests Falsified: Feds

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 @ 03:07 PM gHale

Two former contract employees for Xcel Energy Inc. willfully violated procedures and falsifying reports about safety-related tests of casks filled with high-level nuclear waste stored at the Monticello, MN, nuclear power plant, federal investigators said.

In addition, Xcel officials did not monitor the work of the contract employees as they placed dye on welds to look for cracks in late 2013, said investigators for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The improper testing ended up discovered by an NRC inspector who checked videos of the work.

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After discovering the problem, the company rechecked the casks before most of them went in a concrete bunker outside the reactor building, Xcel said. They could remain on the site for years because there is no permanent national storage site that can handle the waste.

“We are confident the storage canisters are safe and secure, and the welds are good,” said Laura McCarten, regional vice president for Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy.

McCarten said the company responsible for the improper testing, TriVis Inc., of Birmingham, AL, is no longer a contractor for the company, and Xcel has taken steps to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again. TriVis was not immediately available for comment as its phone number is no longer in service.

The lapse could have significant consequences for Xcel. As the operator of the reactor, Xcel bears responsibility for overseeing outside companies. Scott Northard, vice president of Xcel nuclear fleet operations, said in the future such tests will end up monitored in person by Xcel employees to confirm workers did the work properly.

The NRC’s Office of Investigations, which investigated the Monticello incident, sometimes brings criminal cases with the U.S. Justice Department. The findings released Monday are not criminal charges, but they put Xcel on notice the NRC is considering “escalated enforcement action.” Xcel has the right to respond in writing, at a meeting with the NRC or via arbitration.

Northard said NRC officials told the company Xcel does not stand accused of willful violations. He said Xcel does not expect to face criminal action. He said NRC officials would not reveal what enforcement action is under consideration against TriVis employees.

Both of the unnamed technicians were testing for cracks on welds sealing the lids on six casks filled with highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods. Test procedures called for placing dye on the welds for 10 to 15 minutes and then looking for cracks.

But the resident NRC inspector, and later other investigators, discovered from videos the workers waited for far less time, as little as 23 seconds. Yet both workers falsified forms, reporting they waited 10 minutes, the investigative findings said.

The technicians said they hadn’t read the rules or got bad information from a supervisor. One worker told investigators that “he was rushing himself because he had heard contractor management complain about employees working too slowly.” The NRC said the technicians’ supervisor “apparently was not routinely on site and did not review the videotapes.”

Xcel’s operation of the Monticello plant has been under scrutiny from regulators. In 2014, an NRC official said Xcel needed to improve after inspectors found lapses in the reactor’s flood-response plan. Four months ago, the NRC reported a security-related violation at the plant. Northard said Xcel corrected those issues and passed re-inspections by the NRC.

Separately, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission this year blamed Xcel’s “imprudent management” for cost overruns that drove up the price of a five-year Monticello upgrade from $320 million to $748 million. Xcel defended the upgrade, saying the 1970s-era reactor ended up rebuilt, extending its life and boosting its output.