WASHINGTON—GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy has paid more than $45,000 in penalties for "significant" violations of federal regulations in its effort to develop a new means of producing atomic fuel, Global Security Newswire has learned.
Newly available U.S. government documents show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined in May that the company's Global Nuclear Fuels-Americas branch had committed five infractions in its laser enrichment program. GE-Hitachi hopes to win licensing approval for the nation's first such laser facility by next June.
The proposed plant near Wilmington, N.C., would employ an as-yet experimental process to commercially enrich uranium for fueling nuclear power stations worldwide. If successful in an industrial setting, laser enrichment could be carried out in relatively small facilities and significantly reduce the cost of reactor fuel.
At least one of the violations in the company's so-called Global Laser Enrichment effort involved "willful actions" and "deliberate misconduct," according to an NRC letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not publicly released the May 19 notification letter it sent to the GE-Hitachi entity. However, it made the document available to GSN in heavily redacted form, citing proprietary information and security concerns for the selected omissions.
Many key words and phrases are missing from the document, so the specific nature of the violations remains largely unclear.
What is apparent from the text, though, is that the violations were "security-related" and were deemed troubling because of the potential for harm. David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, on Tuesday declined to discuss the breaches on the basis that the agency does not publicly address security matters.
In May, however, the nuclear commission found at least one infringement of regulations serious enough to constitute a "Severity Level II" violation -- one that is "of very significant regulatory concern," according to agency guidelines.
"Although no actual consequences occurred ... the potential consequences were very significant due to ... the willful actions (deliberate misconduct)" of one or more individuals, the much-censored NRC letter states.
It continues: "Willful violations are a particular concern to the NRC because our regulatory framework is based, in part, on the integrity and commitment of licensees, contractors, and employees, to adhere to regulatory requirements."
Other unspecified violations cited in the notice represented a "significant" or "Severity Level III" contravention, for which the NRC assessed a $17,500 civil fine.
The one "very significant" violation -- marked by "deliberate aspects" not spelled out in the redacted letter -- warranted a $28,000 penalty, the commission said. GE-Hitachi paid a total of $45,500 in NRC civil fines earlier this month, according to the NRC document and information provided by company and agency spokesmen.
One of the justifications cited by the nuclear agency for blocking out more than three dozen passages in the four-page notice is already raising eyebrows among some atomic experts who have read the document. The commission is pointing to a Freedom of Information Act exemption from public release aimed at protecting law enforcement information that "could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual."
With the exact nature of the violations remaining secret, the oblique reference to persons vulnerable to potential security risk adds a mysterious twist to the case.
The agency findings stemmed from a January on-site inspection and an in-office inspection the following month, the violation notice states. After an April conference with NRC officials to discuss the violations, the company took several "corrective actions," including "terminating individuals from the project" and reinforcing a "commitment to integrity," according to the letter.
This was not the first time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited GE-Hitachi for serious infractions in its Global Nuclear Fuels effort. The agency lashed the entity in June 2010 for a significant problem with its "integrated safety analysis methodology," the May letter states.
Word of the revelations has reached Capitol Hill, where some key Democrats and Republicans have voiced nuclear proliferation concerns associated with the laser-enrichment technology.
Debate lately has revolved around an American Physical Society petition filed last year that calls on the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require license applicants for domestic civil nuclear facilities to evaluate any potential proliferation risks.