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NRC Issues Confirmatory Order on 2021 Alert at NIST Center for Neutron Research

Order outlines corrective actions NIST will take in response to the unplanned 2021 reactor shutdown.

View from above shows NIST's Center for Neutron Research building with green lawns and trees.

NIST's Center for Neutron Research, in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Credit: NIST

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a Confirmatory Order that documents the commitments made by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to ensure the safe operation of the research reactor in the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR), which experienced an unplanned shutdown on Feb. 3, 2021. 

Based on the NCNR’s completed and planned actions, as well as its commitments described in the Confirmatory Order, the NRC has not imposed a civil penalty or issued a cited notice of violation and will not pursue any further enforcement action.

“All of us at NIST are committed to undertaking the comprehensive corrective actions that will ensure a strong safety culture at the NCNR and prevent something like this from happening again,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio. “We appreciate the NRC’s engagement with NIST, and we have already made many changes and improvements so that this important national resource can return to safe operation.”

The public was safe at all times during the 2021 incident, in which a single fuel element overheated and was damaged because it was not securely latched into place within the research reactor. The Confirmatory Order includes corrective actions NIST has already completed, as well as those planned for the future.

In March 2022 the NRC released the findings of a special inspection  that identified seven apparent violations, five of which had been identified by NIST and reported to the NRC. The Confirmatory Order released today notes that the agencies agree that NIST has already completed many corrective actions and enhancements that would preclude recurrence of this type of incident. These actions include improvements to the NCNR safety culture; changes to how reactor operations are managed and staff members are trained; and updated procedures, including a new requirement for fuel element latch verification through both mechanical and visual methods, which was recently approved by the NRC. 

NIST has agreed to contract with a third-party, independent nuclear consultant to conduct an assessment of the NCNR’s safety culture. The consultant will also help the NCNR implement any recommendations and corrective actions identified in the assessment. The process for identifying a contractor has already begun. 

The NIST research reactor remains shut down while the NRC considers NIST’s separate request to restart. 

In addition to NIST’s internal response and investigation into this event, NIST invited four outside experts to review the NIST analyses and planned corrective actions, as well as the organizational response, and to provide recommendations. Their individual reports can be found on the NIST website.

The NCNR is a national resource where industry, universities and government agencies conduct world-class, highly cited research in biology, chemical and engineering physics, fundamental neutron physics and more. Additional information on the February 2021 incident including all previous updates from NIST and a Q&A can be found on the NIST website

Released August 2, 2022, Updated February 22, 2023