The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently granted Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin an exemption for reporting certain “unplanned contamination events.”
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.
Greene County environmental activist Park Overall, who owns property near the river, took exception in an email to an NRC official.
She questioned an exemption in the 24-hour incident reporting requirement to what the NRC terms “situations that require the imposition of additional radiological controls for greater than 24 hours” because of an unplanned contamination event inside “an established contamination-radiologically controlled area.”
“NFS doesn’t have to report an accident within 24 hours?” Overall asked James Downs of the NRC.
Downs replied that the 24-hour reporting requirement “was established for all special nuclear material licensees, but did not consider that some (fuel facilities) have specific areas established for contamination control while other licensees do not,” including most medical, industrial and academic users.
“The safety evaluation reports for each of the referenced exemptions document the NRC staff’s findings, which determined that there is no risk to public health and safety given the site-specific conditions and programs described,” Downs wrote.
Downs wrote that the exemption only applies under specific circumstances. It would not alter reporting requirements for an unplanned contamination event “outside an established contamination-controlled area.”
NFS would continue to notify the NRC within 24 hours of unplanned contamination events in non-controlled areas like adjacent hallways, rooms, rooftops and outdoor areas, according to an agency safety evaluation report of NFS.
The exemption would not change reporting of unplanned contamination events covered under other NRC requirements.
The NRC conducted a “routine inspection” between June 22 and 25 at NFS to determine if activities were conducted safely and in accordance with agency requirements.
Areas examined during the inspection included management structure, item monitoring, process monitoring, measurement systems and control, physical inventory, internal control, alarm resolution, assessment and record-keeping.
“Based on the results of the inspection no violations of more than minor significance were identified,” Robert E. Williams Jr., chief of the NRC Division of Fuel Facility Inspection branch overseeing NFS, wrote NFS President John Stewart in a July 23 letter.
Under the exemption, NFS is not required to report an unplanned contamination event when it occurs “in a restricted area in a building which is maintained inaccessible to the public by multiple access controls.”
Other conditions include:
- That the area was controlled for contamination before the event occurred, the release of radioactive material is under control, and no contamination has spread outside the area.
- Radiation safety personnel trained in contamination control are readily available.
- Equipment and facilities that may be needed for contamination control are readily available.
- The otherwise reportable unplanned contamination event is documented in the licensee’s Corrective Action Program.
The exemption “will not endanger life or property or the common defense or security” and is in the public interest “because it promotes regulatory efficiency,” according to an NRC document.
The NRC also recently released a schedule of 2021 inspections at NFS. The 12 planned inspections throughout the year focus on issues like operational safety, nuclear criticality safety, operational safety, effluent control and environmental protection, and radiation protection.
A pair of public meetings hosted in Erwin in 2019 by the NRC about NFS operations were the first held in two years. No public meetings are scheduled in 2020. None have yet been scheduled by the NRC for 2021.
CONCERN ABOUT WATERWAYS
Overall and members of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network critical of NFS operations have maintained that radioactive materials released into groundwater have migrated offsite and into waterways like the Nolichucky River and are a factor in cancer cases far downriver.
NRC and Virginia-based parent company BWXT maintain that facility operations pose no environmental concerns.
Overall asked Downs about a 1979 study done she said contains information about the link between NFS and incidences of cancer near waterways in the region.
Downs replied that he only found newspaper articles that he forwarded to Overall. Downs wrote that he had not heard back from the federal Department of Health and Human Services after making several phone calls, and sent her links to obtain information through Freedom of Information Act sites.
A 25-year operating license extension for NFS was granted by the NRC in 2012. The license authorizes NFS to receive, possess, store, use and ship special nuclear material enriched up to 100 percent. NFS and its predecessors have been operating in Erwin since the 1950s.
The most recent study of cancer risks in populations near U.S. nuclear facilities, including NFS, was done in 1990.
A pilot study by the National Academy of Sciences to determine the potential cancer risk in the population near U.S. nuclear facilities received federal approval in 2012, but the NRC announced in 2015 that the study would not be conducted for financial reasons.
The 1990 report, undertaken by the U.S. National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute, found no increased risk of cancer mortality related to the proximity of an individual to the nuclear facilities.
NRC officials had said the goal of the National Academy of Sciences analysis was to provide a “modern version” of the now 30-year-old NCI study.
Overall and members of ECAN have said an environmental risk still exists.