ERWIN — Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., could get approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as early as next week to begin operating a new production line that will convert highly radioactive uranium hexafluoride into other compounds.
Joseph Shea, NRC Region II director of the Division of Fuel Facility Inspection, made that disclosure during an “exit meeting” Wednesday related to a operation readiness inspection for the new production line that the NRC conducted in June.
During the 4 p.m. meeting at the NFS Training Center in Erwin, David Hartland, an NRC senior fuel facility inspector, said the NRC had discovered some problems with the proposed new production line in June.
But he said all the issues raised by the inspection had been resolved to the NRC’s satisfaction.
‘NO OUTSTANDING ISSUES’
“There are no outstanding issues,” he said at the conclusion of his presentation.
He and Shea indicated that the operational readiness inspection showed that NFS can operate the new production line safely.
But several Erwin and Greene County residents who attended the meeting between representatives of the NRC and Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., said they are concerned about whether the new production line can be operated safely.
Barbara O’Neal, a retired Department of Defense public information officer who lives in Erwin, said she is concerned that the effluents from the new production line could affect the environment.
She noted that an ad hoc group of Erwin residents has been challenging implementation of the new uranium hexafluoride production line for the last two-and-a-half years.
AERIAL RELEASES CITED
“You can’t keep adding new processes without affecting the air and the water,” she said. “The bottom line is that this new process is going to add effluents to the air and the water.”
Of special concern to her, O’Neal said, is possible aerial releases of acids produced by the new production process.
O’Neal said a review of NRC documents related to past uranium hexafluoride by NFS indicated that as much as 44 pounds of acid was released to the environment between 1962 and 1996.
During his presentation, the NRC’s Hartland said NFS had installed equipment, including smoke-stack “scrubbers,” to limit releases of effluents from the new production line into the air or water.
Chris Tipton, another Erwin resident who opposes operation of the new production line at NFS, also told the NRC during a question and answer session that she also is concerned about safety.
“I’m not really wild about the fact that this is a dangerous process that’s really close to our town,” Tipton told the NRC.
SITUATION ‘VERY SCARY’
“All of this I find very scary and we have to depend on you.”
The NRC’s Tipton said he understood her concern. “That’s why we work day-in and day-out to [assure safety],” the NRC’s Joseph Shea replied.
Tipton also said she hopes that the NRC will “do your job fully.”
She told the NRC that, in her opinion, NFS has a “history of non-compliance” with NRC regulations.
“How are we supposed to trust you, or them, if people aren’t complying with regulations?” Tipton asked.
“This is a facility that definitely has a very long history of non-compliance with regulations,” she said. “You can sit up there all day long and talk about assessments and the fact that you’ve put in place regulations. But if you don’t enforce those regulations and if the facility doesn’t respect those regulations, how can we, the public, who live very close to this facility, trust you or them?”
The NRC’s Shea said the NRC works daily to ensure the plant’s safety.
GREENE COUNTIANS SPEAK
Greene County residents Trudy Wallack and Park Overall also posed questions during he meeting, but left before it ended.
Wallack specifically wanted to know if the answers to questions opponents of the new production line had posed to the NRC during a May meeting in Erwin would have an impact on the outcome of the NRC’s decision concerning whether to allow the production line to go into operation.
When the NRC’s Shea struggled to answer that question, Wallack said, “That’s what I thought, Joe [Shea],” and left the meeting.
“You’ve kept us waiting for a very long time,” she said as she departed.
NFS SAYS PROCESS SAFE
But NFS Vice President of Operations Timothy Lindstrom said after the meeting that safety had been built into the new production line.
“We’re real proud of the safety that we’ve designed and constructed into the new facility,” Lindstrom said. “And we’re happy to see that the NRC inspection team validated that safety basis here today.”
He said that once operations begin, he expects processing of uranium hexafluoride to be completed within two to three months.
Lindstrom said only about 500 pounds of uranium hexafluoride are to be processed through the new production line.
Once that material is processed, Lindstrom said, the portion of the new production line designed to deal with uranium hexafluoride will be shut down and eventually decommissioned.
“There are other portions of the facility that conduct fairly routine processing,” Lindstrom said.
He noted that NFS has commercial uranium down-blending contracts that will support the remainder of the new commercial development line going forward “for some time.”
Lindstrom said about 20 people were hired last fall and winter to replace experienced workers and the new employees were trained to operate the new production line.
NFS manufactures fuel for U.S. Navy nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers and also down-blends surplus highly enriched uranium to a low-enriched state suitable for conversion into fuel for Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear power reactors.