ERWIN — Opinions pro and con about the BWXT Nuclear Fuel Services facility are unlikely to change overnight.
At a public “open house” meeting Thursday night coordinated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Erwin Town Hall, representatives of NFS, the NRC and the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network were on hand to exchange views.
Several members of the public also attended the licensee performance review, which covered operations at the plant for 2017 and 2018.
The licensee performance review was the first NRC public meeting regarding NFS held in two years. While some violations were cited at the facility during the two-year review period, the NRC concluded that NFS “has continued to conduct activities safety and securely and in a manner that protects public health and the environment.”
Categories assessed include NFS safety operations, radiological controls, facility support, and security, a topic not discussed due to security restrictions.
While violations were noted and corrected, the NRC concluded that “no area needing improvement was identified in the performance areas mentioned.”
NFS management was present at the meeting to answer questions, along with NRC staff.
ECAN members critical of NFS operations also presented their concerns at the informal meeting format. NRC staff answered questions about inspection results.
ANOTHER MEETING PLANNED
Joel Rivera-Ortiz, NRC Region II senior fuel facility project inspector, acted as a facilitator. Some concerns were raised about the lack of a public question-and-answer session that were part of previous public meetings. Rivera-Ortiz said the NRC will return in a more formalized setting this summer.
The open house format was chosen to allow staff “to better engage the public,” he said.
Laura E. Bailey, NFS communications manager, handed out prepared statements in response to questions about violations found by the NRC at the facility in 2017 and 2018.
She said steps are taken to prevent any type of effluent release. One that happened in July 2018 that was noted by the NRC happened on July 11, 2018, when a radiological spill of 17 liters of uranal nitrate, a water soluble yellow uranium salt, occurred in Building 333 at NFS caused by a glass column break.
The NRC reported that that the spill was contained to an area of about 150 square feet.
“Potential health and safety consequences to workers include exposure to nitric acid and potential spread of radioactive contamination,” an NRC report said. One worker received skin contamination during cleanup activities, the report said.
The issue was resolved to the NRC’s satisfaction, NFS noted in a statement.
“NFS is committed not only to protecting its employees, the public and the environment by limiting effluent releases to not only the regulatory limits but also to a standard of ‘As Low As Reasonably Achievable,’” referred to by the acronym ALARA, the statement said.
A resident NRC onsite inspector, along with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, provides regulatory oversight of all effluent releases from the NFS. “We have been successful in meeting our ALARA goals, which are well below the limits set by these oversight agencies.”
Richard A. Freudenberger, NFS director of quality & safeguards, said NFS “continues to explore new and innovative technologies designed to reduce or eliminate effluent releases.”
The radiological spill in a “radiologically controlled area” due to a leak in the glass storage vessel did not cause radiological or chemical exposures to employee or the environment, an NFS statement said.
“The storage vessel was replaced and the area appropriately cleaned,” it said.
“NFS personnel found the leak and acted quickly to control the issue and clean the area,” Freudenberger said.
A fire water pipe break noted by the NRC occurred on May 4, 2018, when a main water pipeline that provides water to the facility’s fire suppression systems broke while construction was going on. Freudenberger said that the water in the pipeline comes directly from the Erwin city water system and posed no “health or safety consequences to employees, the public and environment.”
Because of the presence of chlorine in city water, NFS was required to report the unplanned release of water to TDEC and the NRC.
Linda Modica of ECAN referred to an NRC event report following the water pipe break that “appears to report the amount of radiation that poured into Martins Creek and the Southwest Ditch as a result of the water pipe break. The drainage ditch flows into Martins Creek which then flows into the Nolichucky River,” she said.
Another violation noted by the NRC in its license inspection reports for 2017 ad 2018 involved “prohibited items” found within the NFS security area — an empty liquor bottle, a container of kombucha tea and and a personal handgun found in an employee’s backpack before the employee entered the site.
“Employees receive information about prohibited items during their initial training when they begin work at NFS and during required annual training,” a company statement said.
NRC CHOSE FORMAT
Bailey said that the choice of meeting format was the decision of the NRC, which organized the open house. NFS officials were there voluntarily to demonstrate their commitment to help the public better understand the operation, she said.
“(NFS) understands the importance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s oversight. NFS is committed to protecting its employees, the public and the environment, and works diligently to ensure our operations not only meet the NRC’s regulations but our own strict standards,” an NFS statement said.
“We will continue to work with the NRC to provide safe and compliant operations,” it concluded.
In March 2018, NFS adopted a new official name and logo reflecting parent company BWXT, which is based in Lynchburg, Virginia. Bailey said BWXT Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. was introduced as a means “to better align BWXT companies.”
NFS produces reactor fuel for U.S. Navy ships and commercial domestic operations. It also processes weapons-grade uranium into nuclear reactor fuel. The facility is located in Unicoi County near the Nolichucky River, about 28 miles upriver from Greeneville.
About 60 percent of the NFS output is reactor fuel sold to the military, 30 percent is manufactured for commercial clients and an additional 10 percent is derived from decommissioning nuclear weapons, a former NRC senior resident inspector at NFS said in 2017.
NO CANCER RISK STUDY
Several ECAN members expressed disappointment about the September 2015 discontinuation of an NRC-funded study to pay for a National Academy of Sciences examination of cancer risks in populations near U.S. nuclear facilities, including NFS.
The NRC cited budgetary concerns and the $8 million projected expense of the study. The NRC contends that conclusions of a U.S. National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute study released in 1990 that found no increased risk of cancer mortality related to the proximity of an individual to a nuclear facilities is still valid.
The NRC had commissioned the NAS study in order to update the one released in 1990.
NRC officials said they were not aware of any future study being funded by the agency. Rivera-Ortiz said an additional factor involves the the population of the area surrounding NFS, which may not be large enough to support a “statistically meaningful” analysis of cancer rates.
Park Overall, a Greene County resident and environmental activist who lives near the Nolichucky River, was outspoken in what she said is “raw plutonium” being released into groundwater from the NFS site into waterways in detectible levels as far as 95 miles away.
“What this is is actionable and murderous,” Overall said.
Bailey said any release of radioactive material from NFS “has been compliant or below” what the NRC deems acceptable levels.
“All of our discharges are below the regulatory limit,” Freudenberger said.
Modica placed maps on tripods in the meeting room showing the complex topography of the area.
She characterized the meeting as a “poster session” that offered no opportunity to ask the NRC publicly about incidents at NFS.
Events like earthquakes and other natural disasters could have a devastating effect if some buildings at NFS are compromised, Modica said.
Freudenberger said that from a natural disaster perspective, buildings on site would present no danger to employees, the public or the environment.
Buzz Davies, another opponent of the NFS operation, said he has identified hundreds of people living near the Nolichucky River in Erwin and communities many miles downstream with increased cancer rates.
NFS has been in operation continually since 1957, under various ownership groups.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said many improvements have been made to buildings and equipment over the last 62 years.
Kevin M. Ramsey, NRC senior fuel facility project inspector, said after a 2011 tsunami heavily damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the NRC began looking at nuclear plants in the U.S., including NFS.
‘A MUCH BETTER PLACE’
“They’re in a much better place now,” Ramsey said. “Many years ago, they didn’t have seismic criteria. If it can stand up to a hurricane, it can stand up to an earthquake.”
Modica said there was evidence of groundwater leaching off the NFS site after a large sinkhole appeared in 2012 near Love Chapel Elementary School in Erwin.
“One of the reasons I produced so many maps is because I am frustrated with some of the maps the NRC produces,” she said. “This place is a mess. The whole issue is a mess. They can’t tell you where a contaminant that has been dumped on the ground will show up the next time it rains.”
Davies said that NFS does not have a quality assurance program in place.
“They continue to operate with this management knee-jerk, kick-the-can-down-the-road (response) and they have done that for more than 60 years,” he said. “The examples of the failures continue.”
Ramsey said NFS does have a “very robust” quality control program in place that addresses uranium processed at the plant.
Larry Harris has been NRC senior resident inspector at NFS for several years.
“I’m on site every day. I see things they are developing (that) are even below the regulatory threshold,” Harris said. “We have no open issues out of Region II.”