Report: Improper Staffing at A&M Nuclear Reactor Leads to Short Shut Down

TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY - Texas A&M University had a short period of time where its nuclear reactor control room was not staffed by a licensed operator as the reactor was running at full power, according to a report.

As listed on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's website and reported by Bob Meyer with the Professional Reactor Operator Society, on Friday morning, there was a two-and-a-half minute period where only a reactor operator trainee and an electronic technician were in the control room of the TRIGA, a one-megawatt reactor.

The report shows a senior reactor operator (SRO) and a reactor operator (RO) were in another part of the facility, and a licensed RO was in the control room. However, the RO left the room with a key to open up another part of the building for another staff member.

The report continues that the RO trainee realized there was not a licensed operator in the control room, paged the building, and shut down the reactor.

"It was determined by SROs that during the 2.5 minutes that RO was absent from the control room, the requirements outlined in Technical Specification 6.1.3.a.2 were not fulfilled," the report states.

The reactor was restarted soon after as authorized by the manager of reactor operations.

The report notes an internal review is set to be conducted and "other corrective actions include the internal suspension of one reactor operator's license privileges pending satisfactory retraining."

The TRIGA (Testing, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactor is described on the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station's website as "an open 'swimming pool'-type research reactor cooled by natural convection providing passive and inherent safety. The core consists of cylindrical fuel elements reflected with graphite."

With one of a number of reactors at universities used for research, the Department of Nuclear Engineering at A&M touts itself as the largest program of its kind in the country, serving about 80 students each year. They also talk about being open -- and popular -- for tours. In 2012, the Nuclear Science Center notes more than 1,700 students from various schools visited to learn about radiation science and nuclear energy.

Monday night, Texas A&M released the following statement from M. Katherine Banks, the vice chancellor and dean of engineering, and also the director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station:

"Our highest priority in our research activities and laboratories is safety.

"The director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Nuclear Science Center on the Texas A&M University campus submitted a notification of reportable occurrence to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on July 25 that there was a two-and-a-half minute period where a licensed reactor operator was not in the control room of the one-megawatt reactor. When other staff members in the control room realized the licensed operator had exited the control room, they followed facility protocol by immediately shutting down the reactor. It was restarted shortly thereafter as authorized by the manager of reactor operations. In addition to submitting a report to the NRC on the day of the occurrence, we have suspended one reactor operator's license privileges and are conducting an internal review of our processes."

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