At Meeting About
Going Into Nolichucky
BY RICH JONES
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
ERWIN -- Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials explained publicly on Thursday evening the reasons why Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) has been allowed to restart a key production line, which had been ordered shut down following a 2009 accident at the NFS plant.
The NRC presentation came during a meeting here that also included a lengthy -- and pointed -- question-and-answer session with interested citizens.
During the question-and-answer session, an NFS safety official acknowledged that the company is discharging highly-enriched uranium into the Nolichucky River.
But both the company and an NRC spokesman said that the amount of the uranium discharge into the river was well within legal limits.
NRC and NFS officials, seated at separate tables in front of a crowd of approximately 100 persons at Erwin Town Hall, reviewed findings of the NRC's Restart Readiness Assessment Team that led to the decision to authorize restart of the Uranium Metal/Oxide process line on May 19 at the NFS facility in Erwin.
The action followed restart of the plant's Navy Fuel process line in late March.
NFS manufactures fuel for the U.S. Navy's fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers and also down-blends highly-enriched uranium to a low-enriched form suitable for conversion into fuel for TVA power-generating nuclear reactors.
The NFS facility had been shut down by NRC in late December 2009 to address problems and procedures that caused an Oct. 13, 2009, incident at the facility.
REPORT BY NRC
NRC concluded that the corrective actions implemented by NFS were reasonable and had sufficient likelihood of being effective to support safe operation of the Uranium Metal/Oxide line upon restart, said Michael Ernstes, NRC's Chief of Branch Support.
The NFS' Uranium/Aluminum process line is scheduled to restart later this year in a similar procedure and review that will also require NRC approval.
At the start of the nearly three-hour meeting, Ernstes said the NRC inspection team had few negative observations and that none were "safety-significant," nor would they preclude a "safe startup" of the Uranium Metal/Oxide line.
The NRC inspection team found no outstanding items under corrective action, Ernstes said.
In summary, NRC reported that "NFS had satisfied all actions," said Eugene Cobey, Deputy Director of the Division of Fuel Facility Inspection for Region II of the NRC.
"NFS has demonstrated a different approach to conduct of operation than we have seen before," Cobey said.
However, Cobey then warned NFS officials seated across the room: "Do not take anything for granted. Remain vigilant, and not let your guard down. If you do, it would not be acceptable, and we will be watching."
NFS President David Amerine said he would have no questions for NRC officials and that his company would continue to take a measured approach to the restart process.
Amerine, who took over as president of NFS in early March, emphasized his support of a Safety-Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) program at the Erwin facility.
He stated that every NFS employee will attend "refresher training" in the SCWE initiative.
Amerine said he would encourage a management presence in all areas of the workplace at the Erwin facility.
In addition, Amerine said he believes strongly in communication and stresses its importance to his managers.
In an age of e-mails and text-messages, Amerine said he encourages his management team "to talk to each other, even if you have to use the telephone!"
A new NFS organizational alignment, complete with photos, will soon be posted at the Erwin facility so that employees will clearly know each manager's role, he said.
My bottom line, Amerine said, "is that safety is good business."
Cobey, of the NRC, then noted that a Nuclear Safety Review Board has been created by the NFS board of directors.
"We will look for instances of safety and accountability," said NFS vice president of operations Jim Lindstrom.
QUESTIONS FROM PUBLIC
Following discussion of the results of the NRC inspection, the evening's agenda turned to a formal question-and-answer session between the public and NRC officials.
At this time, most NFS officials left the meeting, with a notable exception being Amerine, who seated himself in the audience and took notes.
The first question for NRC officials was from Greene County's Park Overall, who asked: "Who here is looking out for the stakeholders. Who is checking the water and air quality?"
Overall went on to state that the public had heard much discussion at the meeting of in-house safety processes and "metrics" but nothing about what happens outside the troubled Erwin facility as an ecological after-effect of the downblending of highly-enriched uranium.
"Surely (someone) must look at the whole picture?" Overall asked.
"I sympathize with your frustration," said Cobey, of the NRC.
"I understand the environmental issues here are sensitive," Cobey said. "What I'm not going to say is something in absolute terms that turns out to be incorrect."
Overall asked, in referring to the restart, "Is it a done deal?"
Cobey replied, "NFS is safe to operate the Navy line and Uranium Metal/Oxide line."
URANIUM INTO RIVER?
Pressing the point made by Overall on water quality, Trudy Wallack, also from Greene County, asked: "Can anyone here assure me ... is there highly-enriched uranium being discharged into the Nolichucky River?"
Then came perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening when Wallack asked: "Is NFS discharging highly-enriched uranium into the Nolichucky River -- yes, or no?"
There was no reply from NRC officials.
At that point, Marie Moore, NFS's environmental and industry safety manager, who was seated in the back of the room, said: "Yes, but there are limits."
"And you're telling me that (Nolichucky River) water is safe?" Wallack asked.
"From NRC's perspective, yes," Cobey said.
Cobey answered that, "certain releases are allowed" and that there have been no violations by NFS.
Cobey made clear that the NRC would continue to work with the State of Tennessee on clean-water issues. He also said that the NRC rarely takes its own independent water sample data.
"NFS is operating effectively with a level of confidence we've not seen before," Cobey said.
Amerine, seated in the audience, then stated that NFS is operating safely.
NFS SAFETY BOARD
Another citizen, Ann Harris, then asked who will select members of the new NFS safety board. Amerine reiterated that the selections would be made by NFS's board of directors.
In response to a question about "the safety culture" at the Erwin plant, Cobey said, "The history of this facility has not been what this agency would have desired."
He emphasized that NRC officials "have been consistently engaging this facility on a more aggressive basis."
Cobey noted that much of the reason for improvements at NFS are due to the presence of Amerine.
OCT. 13, 2009 INCIDENT
On Oct. 13, 2009, NFS experienced an unexpected exothermic reaction within the BLEU Preparation Facility, according to a Jan. 7 "Confirmatory Action" letter it sent to Nuclear Fuel Services.
"The elevated temperatures from the reaction created nitrogen compound gases within the associated process off-gas piping," the letter said.
"An instrument located near the ceiling of the facility detected these gases and generated an alarm which resulted in the evacuation of employees from the affected area.
"Additionally, the elevated temperature of these gases caused portions of the off-gas piping to deform and sag in the nearby area.
"NFS personnel took action to shut down the system and as a result no personnel were injured and offsite environmental releases during the period associated with the event were within regulatory limits."
In response to the event, the Jan. 7 letter to NFS said, the NRC formed a Special Inspection Team, which arrived onsite on Oct. 19, 2009.
"The NRC upgraded its response to an Augmented Inspection Team following notification by NFS that an analysis of the specific type of material processed during the Oct. 13, 2009, event revealed that the generation of the nitrogen compound gases could have resulted in high occupational consequences."
The NRC identified a number of concerns regarding NFS's ability to provide reasonable assurance of its ability to safely operate the Erwin facility, the letter said.
It continued, "These concerns involve the adequacy of NFS' management oversight of facility process changes, perceived production pressures, lack of questioning attitude by workers and management and poor communications.
"In addition, the NRC identified concerns with the decisions made by NFS management to restart the Uranium Aluminum process lines without fully understanding the causes of the events and correcting the underlying problems that caused them."