BY KEN LITTLE
A Greeneville Water Commission (GWC) official said this week that the public water supply drawn from the Nolichucky River does not contain dangerous levels of radioactive contaminants.
GWC Superintendent Laura White said water processed for drinking has amounts well below state standards for any radioactive elements.
White commented in response to a pending pilot study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to determine the potential cancer risk in the population surrounding the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant in Erwin, about 28 miles upriver from Greeneville.
The study is funded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Nolichucky River water was tested in August 2011 and August 2012 by the GWC, White said.
"We were actually waived in 2011 for radionuclide monitoring until 2016. Because of the public concern that has been generated by NRC and their permitting issues, we tested more frequently to ensure that our customers know that we are doing everything we can to put their minds at ease and assure them that they are receiving a product that is safe," White said.
NFS was issued a 25-year operating license renewal in 2012 by the NRC.
The Greeneville Water Commission began using the Nolichucky River as a source of drinking water in 1929. Prior to that, the Big Spring, in downtown Greeneville, was used as the water source for the town, White said.
"We currently withdraw, on average, eight million gallons per day from the river. Our water intake is at river mile marker 57.2. For homeland security purposes, we do not give out the coordinates or any other specifics of where our actual structure is," she said.
"We are approximately 30 river miles downstream from the Embreeville Station in Jonesborough," White added.
The GWC is required by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) "to conduct monitoring for certain parameters during a three-year monitoring period," White said.
White said results from an August 2012 radionuclides (RADS) analysis show that the gross alpha, gross beta, radium 226 and radium 228 "were all well below detectable limits," according to findings by ESC Lab Sciences in Mount Juliet, the laboratory retained by the GWC to do the work.
The gross alpha level from the 2011 test was 1.2 pci/l, and the gross beta level was 2.4 pc/L. Levels of Radium 226 and Radium 228 were below detectable levels, White said.
She said pCi/l is picocuries per liter, which is the U.S. measurement unit of radioactivity.
The only reason to test for the presence of uranium is if gross alpha is at least 15 pc/L or higher, White said.
"Our gross alpha was non-detectable," White said. "Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle, so if the alpha is low, there is no need to measure uranium."
The pilot study was approved last fall by the NRC. It was called long overdue by critics of the NFS plant in Unicoi County.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships. It also converts government stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
NRC officials said the goal of the NRC-sponsored Academy study is to provide a "modern version" of a 1990 U.S. National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute (NCI) report entitled "Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities."
The 1990 NCI report concluded that cancer mortality rates were not elevated in populations living near nuclear plants.
The NRC has used the 1990 NCI report as its primary resource when communicating with the public about cancer mortality risk in counties that contain or are adjacent to certain nuclear power facilities.
SPRING STUDY START
NRC approval of the study followed a recommendation by an NAS committee to determine cancer risk in populations surrounding the NFS plant and six commercial U.S. nuclear power plants in other states.
The NAS pilot study should get under way in early spring, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh said last week.
It will cost about $2 million and is funded by the NRC.
The study will examine seven U.S. sites, including six commercial plants and NFS, "with two types of epidemiological studies," NRC officials recently said.
The first will focus on multiple cancer types in populations living near the facilities. The second will be a case-controlled study of cancers in children born near the facilities.
"The NRC is asking the academy to carry out this effort, which will help the agency determine whether to extend the effort to the remaining U.S. reactors and certain fuel-cycle sites," an NRC news release said.
NRC staff anticipates the study "will continue at least into 2014," an October 2012 news release said.
NFS officials have said that the plant poses no public health threats. NFS and its predecessors have been operating at the site since the 1950s.