Local activists raise environmental and safety concerns
By Lorelei Goff
An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a trial-level body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that determines rights and obligations between disputing parties in agency licensing and enforcement cases, rejected a hearing petition from Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, a local advocacy group, on January 30. Through the petition, ECAN sought to intervene in a license amendment request by Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. The company is seeking the amendment in order to refine highly enriched uranium metal at its plant in Erwin. Uranium metal can be used for a variety of purposes, including weapons, nuclear power reactors and medical applications.
Nuclear Fuel Services is the sole facility licensed to process highly enriched uranium to make nuclear fuel for reactors used to power the U.S. submarine fleet and aircraft carriers. NFS also downblends highly enriched uranium to produce low-enriched uranium suitable for use as commercial nuclear reactor fuel and for national defense programs. Downblending is a process in which highly enriched uranium is mixed with natural uranium to make low-enriched uranium.
NFS is seeking permission to begin refining highly enriched uranium as soon as construction to accommodate the new process is completed within the plant. The new product line is intended to fill a gap in production while the aging uranium processing facility in the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is typically responsible for this process, is replaced by a new facility.
The new refining process would recycle existing material. The United States has not produced highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons since 1964, according to an emailed statement from a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson.
“[Highly enriched uranium] in the U.S. inventory is finite and irreplaceable and is therefore required to be recycled for use in support of numerous national security missions, including NNSA’s Defense Programs, Naval Reactors, and Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Programs,” wrote the spokesperson. “NFS will recycle [highly enriched uranium] through conversion of oxide into metal. While Y-12 will continue to purify metal, the contract with NFS closes a capability gap for oxide-to-metal conversion, which will temporarily be unavailable at Y-12 starting in July 2023.
“The contract with NFS is a bridging strategy as NNSA’s long-term plan is for Y-12 to resume converting uranium oxide to metal in Building 9215 in the mid- to late-2030s.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for oversight of NFS, which is one of many subsidiaries owned by parent company BWX Technologies, Inc. NFS requested its existing license be amended to allow the plant to provide additional uranium purification and conversion services under an existing $57.5 million federal contract.
The contract directs NFS to design and license a process for uranium purification and conversion to highly enriched uranium metal, according to an emailed statement from NRC Public Affairs Officer Dave Gaspersen. The license amendment would authorize NFS to perform that purification process.
“The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) added approximately $10 million of scope to the phase 1 contract. NFS has submitted a proposal to NNSA for phase 2 of the contract,” said Nuclear Fuel Services Communications Manager Laura Bailey in an emailed statement. “We anticipate a response later this year. At that time, we would begin construction within our facility.”
Structural construction on the main processing building for the new Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was completed in 2021. However, delays caused by COVID and supply chain issues have moved the projected date for the new uranium processing facility at Y-12 to begin operating from 2025 to 2027.
The Erwin Citizens Awareness Network’s petition cited four objections, including that a nuclear weapons proliferation assessment hasn’t been completed for the new refinement process and that the purpose and need for the project are described too narrowly. The group also cited concerns about historical and ongoing chemical and radiological contamination of groundwater, soil and air, and said that the lack of stringent quality assurance requirements has failed to create a safety culture that protects the public, workers and the environment.
The petition “failed to show that any of its four contentions are admissible under the governing standards,” according to a memorandum and order issued by the board on January 30 that denied a hearing requested by the community group.
Barbara O’Neil, vice president of Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, says she has compiled documents that show more than 350 violations at Nuclear Fuel Services since it began operating.
The plant made international news in 2006 when about 9 gallons of highly enriched uranium solution spilled near an elevator pit, where it could have collected and resulted in a nuclear reaction.
The plant shut down for seven months and was required to undergo frequent inspections. According to Erwin Citizens Awareness Network President Linda Cataldo Modica, two resident inspectors were assigned to the site ”for years afterward.”
“And by the way, this was all hushed up,” Modica says. “The public didn’t know about it until the then-chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was [Gregory B. Jaczko], demanded that the NRC report it to the Congress. One of the congressmembers said it was through dumb luck that there wasn’t a major accident.”
Modica asserts the plant’s infrastructure and machinery is too old to safely continue downblending or enriching uranium. The plant was established in 1957 and began nuclear fuel fabrication and uranium recovery operations in 1959.
“The closest thing to an environmental impact study was done in the early years of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it was called an environmental impact appraisal,” Modica says. “At that point, the plant’s life expectancy was estimated to be 30 years.”
Modica describes the amendment request as a proposal for a hazardous process to be conducted by a company with a history of safety and environmental violations.
“And, by the way, Erwin Citizens Awareness Network’s petition for a hearing was denied on the same afternoon when Nuclear Fuel Services, that morning, had an explosion that injured five workers and sent two of them to the hospital,” says Modica.
Terry Lodge, an attorney for the local group, says testing required under current regulations is inadequate. He points out that there’s been “a great deal” of radioactive as well as chemical pollution of soil and groundwater beneath and in the vicinity of the plant over its 65-plus years of operation.
“The company does not deny that,” Lodge says. “They say, however, that there is no substantial public health risk because limits imposed by (the Tennessee Department of Health and the NRC) have not been exceeded.
“Our real focus there is that there are quite a few radionuclides that are not measured, not monitored, not looked for in the water and that there’s a cumulative effect when you have long-term, long-lived radiation present in the water supplies.”
Lodge filed an appeal on February 24. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff and Nuclear Fuel Services have until March 21 to respond to the appeal. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will likely issue its ruling on the appeal within two to three months of the March 21 deadline.
In addition to the environmental and safety concerns, ECAN asserts that public comments emailed to the NRC regarding the petition were disregarded by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel.
The Appalachian Peace Education Center, a local nonprofit organization, plans to hold a People’s Hearing about NFS’s license amendment request on March 26 at 2 p.m., at the Johnson City Public Library in Johnson City, Tenn. Speakers will include “experts in nuclear safety, in nuclear destruction and nuclear pollution, as well as from community members from the affected area surrounding NFS,” according to an emailed statement from Appalachian Peace Education Center.