BY KEN LITTLE
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Thursday renewed the operating license of Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. (NFS) in Erwin for an additional 25 years.
The action prompted a positive reaction from NFS officials and an angry response from longtime critics of the Unicoi County operation.
NFS has been operating on a 10-year license that expired on July 31, 2009.
The approval "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 news release.
Joseph Henry, NFS president, said in a statement Thursday tha, prior to granting the renewal, the NRC "conducted extremely rigorous reviews of safety and environmental practices and the facility can safely operate for another 25 years."
"We are proud of our work and will continue operating our facility committed to the highest standards in safety and security, protecting the public and the environment," Henry said.
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 nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
The NFS plant in Unicoi County is located near the Nolichuckey River, 28 miles upstream from Greeneville. The river is the primary source of drinking water for Greene County.
Opponents of the plant claim people who live downriver have suffered higher than average cancer rates. A civil lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court that names NFS and its predecessors is pending.
NFS submitted its renewal application in June 2009. NRC regulations permitted the company to continue operating past the expiration of the previous license while the NRC reviewed the renewal request.
"The NRC staff performed a detailed technical review and determined that the application demonstrated the company's qualifications, training and experience to use the licensed material according to NRC regulations, and that the company's equipment, facilities and procedures are adequate to protect health and minimize danger to life and property," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said in a news release.
The NRC staff held several public meetings in Erwin and at NRC headquarters to explain the license renewal review process, the environmental assessment, "and the resolution of certain items identified during the technical safety review," Hannah said.
ERWIN MEETING PLANNED
Another meeting will be held in Erwin to discuss the results of the review process. Details will be announced once preparations are complete, Hannah said.
NFS had first sought a 40-year renewal of the license.
In September 2011, the company changed its license renewal request to 25 years, according to documents submitted to the NRC.
NFS and its predecessors have been operating in Erwin since the 1950s.
Turpin said NFS has been the sole supplier of nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy's fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines since 1964. The nuclear fuel manufactured at NFS has an operational lifespan of more than 30 years.
As part of the license renewal process, NFS provided information to the NRC "including specifics regarding safety and environmental practices," Turpin said.
Henry said the NRC's operating license renewal "ensures our ability to continue providing fuel for the U.S. Navy, and secures jobs for our employees and contractors."
Park Overall, an environmental activist and Greene County resident who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Bob Corker, was monitoring primary race returns Thursday night. But Overall said she was far more concerned by the NFS license renewal.
"I'm devastated. This is huge," Overall said. "A 25-year extension is unheard of. I've never heard of any plant in America getting an extension like this."
Overall has long been critical of the NRC and its relation to facilities like NFS.
"The NRC is in bed with industry and industry cannot get rid of this waste," Overall said. "This is a billion-dollar industry and they want to keep it that way."
Barbara O'Neal, an Erwin resident and a member of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, Inc., said Thursday night in an email response to questions that she was "shocked and appalled" that the NRC renewed the NFS license for another 25 years.
O'Neal noted that the State of Tennessee renewed the NFS National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit "for only three years."
"In the past, it has always been 10 years. If they can't discharge into the air and water, then they can't operate," she said.
O'Neal cited the age of the NFS plant -- 54 years -- as another factor against its continued operation.
The facility was "not intended for operation beyond 25 years," she claimed.
O'Neal also cited "two scathing safety assessments" within the last five years by the NRC's Independent Safety Assessment Team, which "revealed a multitude of safety issues that would literally take years to correct."
O'Neal said NFS has "years of mixed hazardous waste," both radiological and chemical, stored on site, which poses "a threat to the health and safety of the community, especially in the event of a natural disaster."
NFS officials, O'Neal said, "have been in chronic noncompliance with federal regulations for years, and the NRC knows it."
O'Neal believes the Navy played an "influencing factor" in the decision.
Henry said NFS is good for Unicoi County and the entire country.
"NFS is an important asset to our nation, but also to the local community. We hope to continue our contribution to the nation and community for many years to come," Henry said.
More information about NFS is available on the NRC website http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/materials/fuel-cycle/nuclear-fuel-services.html.