Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Erwin uranium spill cloaked in secrecy

Erwin uranium spill cloaked in secrecy

Federal regulators looking into NRC policy that kept details from being public

Federal regulators are reviewing a policy that has kept details on an East Tennessee nuclear facility — including a potentially deadly spill of highly enriched uranium last year — hidden from the public.

Since August 2004, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has designated most correspondence with Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. as “official use only,” which has prevented inspection reports and other materials on the nuclear fuel producer from being publicly released.

That policy kept a March 2006 uranium spill at the company’s Erwin, Tenn., plant out of public view for more than a year, until the incident was disclosed in May in a required annual report to Congress. Local authorities weren’t even informed of the spill.

The disclosure drew attention from a Congressional committee, prompting the NRC to re-examine the “official use only” tag, an administrative designation that allows the commission to withhold sensitive documents without technically classifying them.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said commission staffers were reviewing the designation for documents on Nuclear Fuel Services, and possibly other licensees as well.

“I would assume that’s something they’re looking at across the board,” Hannah said.

The March 2006 incident prompted a change to the company’s Special Nuclear Materials License, but the February order detailing the change was kept from the public, which would have had a right to request a hearing on the changes. Hannah said the NRC has decided to reissue the order publicly, possibly within the week.

“The changes were an affirmation that NFS should establish a program to create a more robust safety culture within the plant among its employees and supervisors,” said Nuclear Fuel Services spokesman Tony Treadway.

The spill last year involved about 35 liters of highly enriched uranium solution that leaked into a protected glovebox, then onto the floor in a facility where highly enriched uranium is “downblended” to a lower enrichment for use in commercial reactors, including TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama.

According to the NRC’s report, there were two chances for a “criticality” accident, where a nuclear chain reaction releases radiation. If such an incident occurred, “it is likely that at least one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute health effects or death,” according to the report.

More information on the event came to light last week in a letter sent to the NRC by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The NRC had provided the committee with inspection reports on the Erwin facility, which have not been publicly released.

“NRC inspection reports suggest that it was merely a matter of luck that a criticality accident did not occur,” reads the letter, signed by U.S. Reps. John Dingell, the committee’s chair, and Bart Stupak, a subcommittee chair, both Michigan Democrats.

The letter revealed that the NRC implemented its “official use only” policy in August 2004 after a request from the Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Reactors, which was concerned that sensitive national security information could be found on the NRC’s public records system. The memo that established the policy was itself kept from the public.

“Thus, the public and Congress have been kept in the dark regarding NRC’s decision to withhold all documents regarding the NFS plant from public view,” the congressmen wrote.

The policy was supposed to cover only documents related to Nuclear Fuel Services’ and another contractor’s program to make nuclear fuel for Navy submarines. Treadway said last year’s spill was not related to the company’s production of naval fuel.

The NRC’s Hannah said he did not know why the spill was kept secret given the limited scope of the “official use only” policy.

“Unfortunately, we’re in a position in this case where it seems the public has been denied the right to know what’s going on there,” said Linda Modica, a Jonesborough resident who chairs the Sierra Club’s national radiation committee.

Modica said she lives downwind of the Erwin facility and drinks groundwater from the same watershed.

“We have no idea what, if anything, was released to the air or water at the time of that spill,” she said.

Yet the NRC has to walk a “delicate line” between giving citizens information about nuclear accidents and preventing terrorists from learning too much about bomb-grade materials, U.S. Rep David Davis said.

Davis, a Republican who hails from Unicoi County, said he has a personal stake in making sure his constituents are safe — his mother-in-law lives a half-mile from the Erwin facility.

“I want to make sure we use common sense on this issue,” Davis said. “We don’t want too much information out, but we don’t want to withhold information either.”

With about 715 employees, Nuclear Fuel Services, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is the largest employer in Unicoi County. The private company has a history of fines and enforcement actions by the NRC, which regulates commercial reactors and other uses of nuclear materials.

Erwin Mayor Don Lewis worked at the Nuclear Fuel Services plant for 43 years before retiring in 2002.

Lewis said he had “heard rumors” about the spill but ultimately learned about it through media reports, the same way as the general public. But he said he had no concerns about the incident or the fact that local authorities were not notified after it happened.

“I didn’t have any complaint whatsoever with the way it was handled,” Lewis said. “We can always ‘what if’ this, or ‘what if’ that, but really you got to look at the facts about the thing.”

Treadway said the spill did not injure anyone or cause harm to the environment. He said Nuclear Fuel Services reported the incident promptly to the NRC’s two resident inspectors at the Erwin facility. The NRC later notified the state of the spill, but not local authorities.

“We would have gone against (NRC) regulations should we have shared it with the public,” Treadway said.

For Modica, that’s precisely the problem.

“How can you trust that your government is duking it out for the public with respect to these polluters if they don’t tell you what they’re doing?” Modica asked.

Business writer Andrew Eder may be reached at 865-342-6318.

© 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.

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