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4 Facilities and Human Resources The NIST Center for Neutron Research has earned a reputation for reliable operation and outstanding service to the research community. In 2010, the NCNR successfully operated on 267 days, well above its target of 250 days. This performance is best in class among similar neutron research facilities. The NCNR is robustly staffed with reactor operators, reactor engineers, and technicians to support these activities. The staff has a healthy demographic composition, with a mix of very experienced personnel and recent hires, who will stay on after the upgrade is completed. This staffing asset positions the NCNR to maintain operational excellence in the future. The Director of the NCNR estimates that there are about 4 or 5 staff personnel supporting each instrument, which leads to a high level of satisfaction in the user community. The NCNR is about to suspend reactor operation for 10.5 months in order to complete its Expansion Project. Five new beam lines will increase its cold-neutron measurement capacity by more than 25 percent, and the reconfiguration of existing instruments will enable better optimization of their performance. The Expansion Project schedule is aggressive and has been analyzed in detail both by NCNR staff and by visiting advisory committees. The critical-path elements are well understood by staff. Removal of the CO2 seal on the BT-9 cold source (a remote handling project) could be problematic. Some of the reactor refurbishments that were planned for the Expansion Project have been deferred. A new refrigerator for the cold source and an upgrade of the control room will be done at a later time. Only 4 safety shim arms will be procured initially, rather than the planned 24. Detailed planning for these activities revealed that they are more complex than originally thought, and anticipated funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was redirected to other items at NIST. The NCNR management decided to reduce the scope of the Expansion Project in order to maintain the schedule. This adjustment demonstrates an admirable commitment to supporting the user community. However, it does increase the risk that equipment failure could force an unplanned interruption of reactor operations in the future. The NCNR Safety Assessment Committee (SAC) recently examined the safety culture of the NCNR. As indicated to the panel, the SAC reported that “the NCNR exhibits the highest regard for safety culture at every level and is implementing the Technical Specifications as required.”7 Coinciding with the NRC panel’s current review of the NCNR in March 2011, Japan was struggling to control four nuclear power reactors crippled in a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Explosions blew the roofs off three of the Japanese reactors. Nearby residents were ordered to stay inside because of dangerous releases of radioactive material. This disaster will likely lead to an intense scrutiny of hazards associated with nuclear facilities. The NCNR should be prepared to answer questions about the 7 Robert Dimeo, NCNR Director, “NCNR Overview to the Panel on Neutron Research,” presentation to the panel, Gaithersburg, Maryland, March 14, 2011. 19
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consequences of low-probability but extreme events that might exceed the design criteria of the reactor building that was built in 1967. The NCNR has established a system that seems to preserve all safety requirements while keeping the openness and accessibility needed for a user facility. Continuing to maintain a rational security program within the constraints of increasing security demands is critical in order to allow efficient use of the facility, especially as the number of users increases with the completion of the Expansion Project. Continuing concern about the security of nuclear facilities is driving the replacement of highly enriched uranium fuel with low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel in research reactors. No date for the conversion of the NIST reactor has been scheduled, but current projections by the Convert program of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) suggest that conversion could take place in the 2015-2016 time frame. Changing to LEU fuel will reduce the neutron flux from the reactor, but the NNSA will mitigate this impact to performance by funding a D2 cold- source system to replace the current H2 cold source and refrigerator with the additional cooling capacity required for the D2 cold source. Additionally, refurbishing the control room and the planned development of a formal software quality program have broad applicability for contributing to safe operation and constitute a key element of a comprehensive security program. There is only one vendor for the fuel used in the NCNR reactor, and costs, which are increasing every year, will be substantially higher with the conversion to low enriched uranium. Additional operational funds will be required for the facility to maintain its high level of operating days and productivity. 20