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Watchdog Criticizes Regulators’ Oversight of Research Reactors

OCT 16, 2023
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
Aerial view of the NIST Center for Neutron Research

The NIST Center for Neutron Research

(NIST)

Last month, the Office of Inspector General for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report from a “special inquiry” that deems the agency’s oversight procedures for research and test reactors to be “outdated” and “inadequate.”

The inquiry started as an examination of NRC’s oversight of the research reactor operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which only began restoring operations last spring following a February 2021 radiation incident caused by errors during refueling. The report states that NRC inspectors had not identified earlier incidents in fuel handling at the reactor that could have presented opportunities to address the issue.

Expanding its scope to other research and test reactors, the inquiry found it is common for NRC not to directly inspect fuel movement and other activities important to safety.

The report spotlights two other facilities where the agency failed to identify problems with fuel operations: the now-decommissioned Aerotest research reactor in San Ramon, California, and the Nuclear Engineering Teaching Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, which notified NRC last year it had operated its reactor for nine months with improper fuel.

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