The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the shipments, which were made last week, are part of a program to remove the materials from the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site (SRS).
To ship the material, the highly-enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons is blended with natural uranium to make low-enriched uranium, according to the
The low-enriched uranium will be made into fuel for the Tennessee Valley Authority's (nuclear power) reactors, Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman Joe Davis told the AP.
Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the first of three license amendments that Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin had requested in connection with NFS plans to recycle the weapons-grade uranium from the Savannah River Site into commercial reactor fuel for TVA.
NFS and the Tennessee Valley Authority call the planned processing of low-enriched uranium in Erwin the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) project.
The license amendment approved by the NRC earlier this month only allows two aspects of the project:
• It allows NFS to begin receiving low-enriched Uranyl nitrate solution from the Savannah River Site.
• It allows the storage of material shipped from the Savannah River Site in a newly completed "Uranyl Nitrate Building" at the NFS plant.
Shipments from the SRS to the NFS plant are expected to continue through 2007, according to the Department of Energy.
Two other special nuclear materials license amendments requested by NFS must be approved by the NRC before the BLEU project can go into full production.
The DOE hailed the beginning of the shipments.
In Northeast Tennessee, however, not everyone is happy that more radioactive material is arriving here.
Linda Modica, a Jonesborough resident who is chairman of the State of Franklin Group of the Sierra Club, said Friday she remains disappointed that the NRC granted a license amendment to NFS that allowed the plant to begin storing the nuclear material now being shipped to Erwin.
The Sierra Club is a national environmental organization with chapters in most states. The State of Franklin Group is composed of Sierra Club members who live in Northeast Tennessee.
Modica said she was especially disappointed that the NRC had granted the first of three nuclear materials license amendments to NFS without granting petitioners a public hearing or conducting an environmental impact statement on the project.
However, Modica said that she and other environmentalists who have petitioned for public hearings to be held on the first two NFS license amendments remain hopeful that a U.S. Atomic Licensing Safety and Licensing Board administrative judge will find that the NRC staff has violated the National Environmental Policy Act in its handling of the NFS license-amendment requests.
"We really do feel that when we do get a hearing, that the judge will see that the NRC staff has been allowing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) violations to occur," Modica said.
The Sierra Club leader also said she feels that, without the completion of a full environmental impact statement, the public will have no way of knowing exactly what will be emitted into the environment around the NFS plant as a result of the Blended
Low-Enriched Uranium project.
NFS, however, has consistently maintained that although emissions will occur, the amounts of radioactive elements released will be too small to have any effect on the environment.
The company, and the NRC, also maintain that previously completed environmental studies have made it unnecessary to complete a full environmental impact statement for the BLEU project.
In addition to the license amendment approved earlier this month, NFS has requested a second license amendment to allow another part of the so-called Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) project to go forward.
A third, and final, license amendment request related to the BLEU project is not expected to be sought from the NRC by Nuclear Fuel Services until October, according to the NRC.
Kathy Helms-Hughes, a Butler, Tenn., resident who filed a petition for a public hearing on the second license amendment requested by NFS, said on Friday that she also was frustrated by the NRC's action in approving the first NFS license amendment that now allows shipments of nuclear material from the Savannah River site.
"It's almost like the NRC is saying, 'The public be damned,'" she said.
NFS maintains that the nuclear fuel generated by the BLEU project will produce enough power to equal 800,000 rail cars of coal to steam generation plants.
The BLEU project has been in development since 1997, the AP reported.
TVA, the country's largest public utility, with three nuclear power stations, has agreed to accept 33 metric tons of DOE uranium stockpile after the uranium has been "down-blended," in other words, diluted by NFS for use in commercial reactors, according to the AP.
'A Big Step'
"Today marks a big step in our nation's nonproliferation efforts," U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham was quoted as telling the AP.
"We have taken material that was left over from the Cold War and turned it into something that is unattractive for use in weapons.
"Not only that, but we've turned it into a material that has an important peacetime use, producing energy."
After the Cold War ended, the Savannah River Site was left with more than 33 metric tons of high-enriched uranium in various stages of nuclear production.
In 1994, President Clinton declared 174 metric tons of uranium in the United States, including the 33 metric tons at SRS, as excess to the nation's security needs, the Department of Energy said.
Meanwhile, DOE reports that it is ahead of schedule in shipping weapons-grade plutonium from the Rocky Flats, Colo., plant to the SRS, according to the AP.
Recent reports show that workers at Rocky Flats have finished packing the nuclear materials into government-approved containers for shipment to SRS.
These shipments will be reprocessed into fuel for commercial reactors as part of the mixed oxide fuels plant at SRS.