By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor
“We can’t make a living cutting one another’s hair. At some point you’ve got to make things.” So said Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in October at the University of Pittsburgh’s Nuclear Engineering Night.
The fact that Pitt was hosting a Nuclear Engineering Night is significant in itself. The fact that the nuclear industry has heeded Commissioner Klein’s call and is making investments to revive the U.S. manufacturing base for nuclear components and fabrication is even more significant.
This past August, Westinghouse and the Shaw Group formed a joint venture to fabricate and assemble structural and equipment modules for the AP1000. The new company, Global Modular Solutions LLC, will feature a 600,000 square-foot facility in Lake Charles, La., scheduled to open this summer. In October, Areva and Northrup Grumman agreed to jointly build a manufacturing and engineering facility in Newport News, Va., to supply the American nuclear energy sector. The 300,000 square-foot facility represents an investment of more than $360 million and will bring more than 500 skilled hourly and salaried jobs to Virginia. Areva Newport News will be the first full-scale manufacturing facility dedicated to supplying heavy components such as reactor vessels, steam generators and pressurizers to the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
Another critical element in the nuclear renaissance will be the availability of components and companies certified to the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) N Stamp standards. The ASME N Stamp program uses the following certification designations, encompassing equipment and activities covered by Section III of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code:
- N: Nuclear vessels, pumps, valves, piping systems, storage tanks, core support structures, concrete containments and transport packaging
- NA: Field installation and shop assembly
- NPT: Fabrication, with or without design responsibility, for nuclear appurtenances and supports
- NS: Nuclear supports
- NV: Pressure relief valves
- N3: Containment for spent fuel and radioactive waste
“Simply put, without an N stamp, you can’t do work in the nuclear power industry,” said Ron Pitts, senior vice president of Fluor’s nuclear business line, which received accreditation and authorization for N, NPT and NA stamps as well as an NS accreditation for two locations in South Carolina in February 2008. “N stamps provide assurance that components, design, fabrication and construction comply with ASME’s strict specifications, adding another layer of safety to nuclear plant design and operation.”
The number of U.S. N stamp holders is directly related to the waxing and waning of interest in new nuclear plant development. In the 1970s and 1980s, about 500 U.S. companies held nuclear stamps. Today, only about 100 do, although the total is beginning to creep back up with the resurgent interest in nuclear power.
The certification process is detailed and laborious. Fluor, which had let its N stamp lapse in 1996, initiated the process in July 2006 and formally received its stamp in February 2008. The bulk of the certification effort involves writing and revising processes and procedures that will govern the design, construction, fabrication and procurement of nuclear components. These procedures must be consistent with applicable ASME Code requirements and industry operating experience, which means many, many hours of meticulous review of documentation.
In mid-2007, Fluor’s insurance company reviewed all of Fluor’s N stamp certification documents to identify gaps and areas for clarification. In November 2007, an ASME team conducted a formal audit. The first two days involved documentation review and personnel interviews. For example, the audit team wants to be sure that personnel at the job siteand at corporate officesknow who is authorized to stop work. Such detail demonstrates the company’s commitment to N stamp requirements and to quality control.
“The ASME team identified a number of items in our documentation that required modification,” said Pitts. “To keep the certification process moving, we felt it was best to make these modifications while the audit team was still on-site.” A crew of 50 engineers worked nights to review and resolve the audit team’s recommendations. After four days on-site, the audit team decided to pass along a recommendation for N stamp approval to the ASME survey committee, which meets quarterly.
While an N stamp is valid worldwide, it is specific to a particular site or location. If Fluor were to win construction contracts for the two new nuclear units planned for South Texas Project, for example, it would have to be audited again within one year of beginning work. N stamps remain active and valid for three years.
N stamp certification is not an inexpensive undertaking. For previous N stamp holders that still have procedures in place and that are ISO 9000 qualified, certification costs may be “in the $1 million range,” said Pitts. For companies seeking their first N stamp, the costs could be many times more. The real expense isn’t so much in the certification process itself, but in the costs associated with establishing an effective quality assurance and quality control program to support N stamp requirements.
As with just about everything in the nuclear power industry, N stamp certification requires a long-term resource and financial commitment. In the context of the nuclear renaissance, the building momentum for N stamp certification is another sign the industry is done cutting hair and is ready to get down to business.