Renewal For Plant
In Erwin Came Just
Days Before Agency
BY KEN LITTLE
Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. (NFS) won't be affected by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NFC) decision earlier this week to stop issuing permits for new nuclear plants, and to stop granting license extensions for existing reactors, until the question of how to dispose of radioactive waste is resolved.
The NRC renewed the operating license of the Erwin facility for an additional 25 years on Aug. 2.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships, and also converts government stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium into materials that can be used for nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
NFS and its predecessors have operated the plant in Unicoi County since the 1950s. It is located near the Nolichuckey River, 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
One of the operations at NFS is "downblending" enriched uranium "to make it usable in commercial fuel," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. The materials are then sold to commercial fuel processors.
"They do convert some materials," Hannah said. "Some of their operations are classified for security reasons."
In issuing the 25-year license renewal to NFS, officials from the NRC concluded "that the company's equipment, facilities and procedures are adequate to protect health and minimize danger to life and property."
NFS has been accused by critics of releasing radioactive waste into the environment, an allegation the company has long denied.
"The commission decision applies only to spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors," Hannah said. "The vast majority is stored in dry casks or spent (fuel) pools at commercial plants."
Highly-enriched uranium used at NFS comes from U.S. Department of Energy facilities and "foreign customers," Hannah said.
"There are other waste streams that come from people who use radioactive materials and that doesn't fall within this definition," Hannah said.
ERWIN MEETING PLANNED
A public meeting hosted by the NRC to explain the agency's reasoning in approving the NFC license renewal is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 30 in Erwin.
"This is an opportunity for us to talk about how the decision was made," Hannah said.
The public will have the opportunity to ask questions of NRC officials about the process leading to the NFS license renewal, Hannah said.
NFS does not produce energy, as do commercial nuclear plants.
The 25-year license renewal "means that the [NRC] has concluded that no safety or environmental issues preclude renewal of the plant's license," NFS spokeswoman Lauri Turpin said in a recent news release.
The nuclear fuel manufactured at NFS has an operational lifespan of more than 30 years, she said.
As part of the license-renewal process, NFS provided information to the NRC "including specifics regarding safety and environmental practices," Turpin said.
NRC REPORT CITED
NFS originally sought a 40-year license renewal.
Barbara O'Neal is a member of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, a group critical of NFS and its ability to operate safely.
O'Neal said an NRC Safety and Safeguards Evaluation Report (SER), which the NRC previously said would not be made publicly available, appeared on the agency website on Aug. 3, the day after the news release announcing the 25-year NFS license renewal.
The 140-page report "contains some startling information, and begs the question: Is the NRC really fulfilling their mission to protect the public health and safety and the environment, or are they protecting the nuclear industry?" O'Neal said in a email communication.
The report said that in 2006, the NRC approved a new policy under which maximum license terms of 40 years were authorized for license renewals and new applications.
The commission also approved license terms for such licensees of "less than 40 years to be decided on a case-by-case basis, if the agency had concerns with safety risk, or if a licensee is introducing a new process."
NRC officials recently said the renewal length is up to the entity making the request.
According to the report, O'Neal said, the NRC was concerned about NFS' "poor compliance history and safety culture issues," and the fact that "NFS has been unable to sustain improved performance for an extended period."
Over the last 11 years, the NRC has issued 22 Escalated Enforcement Actions concerning NFS.
"Eight of these involved willful violations, which refers to conduct involving either a careless disregard for requirements or a deliberate violation of requirements or falsification of information," according to the SER.
In October 2011, the NRC staff contacted NFS to review these concerns "and asked NFS to reconsider its request for a 40-year license renewal," O'Neal said.
In November 2011, NFS revised its request to a 25-year term.
The NRC maintains that radioactive waste can be stored safely. But long-term storage options are currently in short supply.
Nuclear power in the United States is provided by 104 commercial reactors licensed at 65 nuclear power plants.
More than half have been in operation more than 30 years.
High-level waste includes the fuel used in the nuclear reactor, called "spent fuel."
Low-level waste can come from nuclear reactors or from hospitals or universities. A plan to locate a national high-level radioactive waste repository inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada was shelved in 2010.
APPEALS COURT FINDING
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently found that the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in issuing its 2010 update to its Waste Confidence Decision and accompanying Temporary Storage Rule, which addresses the "environmental impacts of temporary storage of spent fuel after cessation of reactor operation."
The court vacated both the decision and the rule, and remanded the case for further proceedings "consistent with the court's opinion."
Key NRC findings in the Waste Confidence Decision struck down by the court include two longtime contentions by the federal government:
* First, that "reasonable assurance exists that sufficient geologic repository capacity will be available for disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel 'when necessary.'"
* Second, that "reasonable assurance exists that, if necessary, spent fuel can be stored safely without significant environmental impacts beyond a reactor's licensed life for operation, in a combination of storage in its spent fuel pool and either an onsite or an offsite dry cask storage system."
Petitioners in the legal action, which include various groups opposed to nuclear power, responded to the court's decision by making requests that the NRC's five commissioners complied with this week.
"Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.
"Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action," commissioners wrote.