NRC grants second license amendment to NFS for BLEU Project

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the second of three proposed licensing amendment requests of Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. to the company's operating license for the controversial Blended Low Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Project at the company's Erwin site.
"It approves NFS's proposed safety controls through the phase II process," David Ayres, fuel facilities inspector at NRC's Region II office in Atlanta, said Wednesday. "The next step, once they are ready for us to go and inspect the new equipment, is for us to verify all the commitments made to insure next. That won't take place for at least two months."
The second amendment green-lights the the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium Preparation Facility (BPF) enabling NFS to process approximately half of the BLEU Project's 33 metric tons of surplus HEU, with the other half being downblended at the Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, S.C. The facility will be used to convert surplus highly enriched uranium (HEU) into low-enriched uranium (LEU), the first step toward preparing the uranium to be a fuel that is suitable for commercial nuclear power reactors. The BPF is the second of three new facilities at the Erwin site necessary to perform the HEU to LEU conversion process.
In total, the three related license amendments submitted by NFS involve the construction of three new buildings - the Uranyl Nitrate Building, the Oxide Conversion Building, and the Effluent Processing Building - on a site referred to as the "BLEU Complex" at the company's site in Erwin.
The first license amendment application, approved by NRC in June 2003, grants NFS the ability to store LEU-bearing material its the Uranyl Nitrate Building. Low-enriched uranyl nitrate solutions would be shipped from the Department of Energy's Savannah River site to NFS' Erwin site for storage in the UNB. The building will contain approximately 24 low-enriched uranyl nitrate tanks, each having a capacity of 10,500 gallons.
A third license amendment, submitted by NFS on Oct. 23, 2003 seeks authority to construct and operate an Oxide Conversion Facility and related Effluent Processing Building, is currently under review by the NRC. These facilities will use a process developed by NFS' partner Framatome ANP. The facilities will convert the liquid uranyl nitrate solution into a uranium oxide (UO2) powder, which will be further processed at Richland, Wash., into uranium fuel pellets for loading into fuel rods and assemblies for use by the TVA. Ayres said phase three readiness review would not occur until later this summer.
The NRC granted the company's first license amendment in June 2003 to operate a facility to store LEU solution from HEU downblending at SRS and at NFS. Shipments from Savannah River to the LEU storage facility began arriving in July of 2003. Ayres said the second amemdment's approval authorized NFS to begin to start processing.
The second license amendment request also includes approval of safety systems installed pertaining to the BLEU Project. Ayres said NRC would review safety systems in a readiness review to verify the second amendment request passed muster.
"It will go through the same type of inspection that phase II and I went through," said Ayres. "Once they iron out the safety controls and headquarters is satisfied with there plans and commitments we will do a readiness review inspection.
Waiting in the wings is a forthcoming ruling by Presiding Judge Alan S. Rosenthal with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel for the NRC in Washington, D.C., was expected to render a decision on the petitioners' standing after NFS submitted its third license amendment request.
Environmental groups including Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley, the State of Franklin Group of the Sierra Club, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, and Tennessee Environmental Council along with Kathy Helms-Hughes, formerly of Butler, have filed petitions with the NRC seeking standing to have a public hearing regarding the BLEU Project. Fifteen Northeast Tennessee citizens represented by aGreeneville attorney have also filed separate petitions. Attorneys for NFS have asked the NRC to deny petitioners' requests for a hearing, stating that none of them had demonstrated "standing" or "injury in fact".
Ken Clark, public information officer for Region II, said an "adverse" ruling by Rosenthal could impede the BLEU Project's completion, but would not stop the technical evaluation process ongoing with NRC.
"It will not stop the process if he grants standing," said Clark. "The project could be impeded at some point at a later date and if there is an adverse ruling. It does not stop the technical process that is ongoing."
Fuel to be used by TVA from the BLEU Project will produce an equivalent amount of electrical power as produced through the burning of 800,000 rail cars of coal through conventional coal-fired steam plants used to produce electricity. When fully operational, the BLEU Project will employ about 130 workers at the Erwin site from across the Northeast Tennessee region, according to NFS estimates.
The BLEU Project is an U.S. Department of Energy initiative to convert stockpiles of surplus weapons-grade uranium into a low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The project will bring more than 33 tons of weapons-grade uranium into Erwin for downblending.