Critics say public concerns on TVA tritium production ignored

Editor's Note: Part one of two in a series.

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Does the public have a voice when it comes to the production of material to be used in weapons of mass destruction? Those who are old hands at challenging such issues say "No."
   On Dec. 17, 2001, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published in the Federal Register, notice to amend Tennessee Valley Authority's license requests for Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants to allow the Department of Energy to contract with TVA for the production of tritium which would be used to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
   The idea of using commercial reactors for a defense mission began during the Clinton Administration with Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and her successor, Bill Richardson. During the last weeks of 1998, while public attention was focused on what appeared to be the impending impeachment of President Clinton, Energy Secretary Richardson was studying how the United States would renew its supply of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen needed to turn an atomic bomb into a hydrogen bomb.
   New kid on the block, having been in his current position barely four months, Richardson came up with two options: Construct a particle accelerator at Savannah River Site or purchase and complete TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, a white elephant deferred by TVA in 1988 due to staggering debt problems.
   A question arose during O'Leary's administration: Would modifying an unfinished reactor for tritium production and operating it for weapons production be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? In 1988, at the request of the Department of Energy, Congress ordered an interagency review of the policy.
   The report, which was published only on the Internet with no report number or publicly available paper trail, found no problem with using the commercial reactors, according to Kenneth Bergeron, a physicist who spent most of 25 years at Sandia National Laboratories performing or managing research on nuclear reactor safety and tritium production.
   According to Bergeron, the interagency report also meant that DOE would not have to demonstrate the safety of a new nuclear facility. Instead, all that was needed was to amend the license of a commercial reactor.
   Bergeron, in his article, "While No One Was Looking," published in the March/April 2001 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, said TVA first responded to DOE's request for proposals by offering up Bellefonte, Watts Bar and Sequoyah, but quickly withdrew the option of using the two operating facilities. Bergeron said Richardson invoked a Depression-era law, the Economy Act, to compel TVA to cooperate, arguing the act "required" TVA, as a federal agency, to provide "irradiation services" as long as those did not interfere with its principal mission.
   Then-TVA Chairman Craven Crowell caved to pressure Dec. 8, 1988, though insisting in his letter to DOE that using Bellefonte would cost less in the long run and would be better for everyone.
   TVA submitted its application for amendment on Watts Bar and Sequoyah to the NRC on April 20, 2001. The documents were made available to the public through the NRC's ADAMS Public Electronic Reading Room link at the NRC Web site -- a site which even members of the NRC admittedly have trouble accessing.
   The idea of publishing the notice is to give the public an opportunity to express concerns about how the NRC decision might affect them. Based on their objections, they may file a request for a hearing and petition to intervene in the decision-making process.
   Having those objections heard, however, is not an easy process. The petitioner must be able to back up those concerns with specific, well-documented "legal-speak" -- including references to studies and laws which substantiate their concerns.
   John Moulton of TVA Media Relations, when asked about issues raised by those who question the production of tritium by TVA, said, "Most of what you say sounds like basically the anti-nuclear community looking at all kinds of different reasons why we shouldn't do it. ... It's basically a national defense mission.
   "When we looked at it, there would be no significant impact at all on the production of electricity. We would have to change some things and there would be some expense, and of course, that's what the interagency agreement with DOE was -- to make sure DOE paid TVA for all of the changes so that there wouldn't be any impact on ratepayers," Moulton said.
   Lisa Cutler of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, when questioned about nuclear non-proliferation, the ongoing reduction of surplus nuclear weapons and the need for tritium, said, "The questions we've been getting on it lately is whether our need for tritium for the stockpile has been changed by any of the announcements coming out of the administration about cuts, and we have determined that it will not. We still have a need for domestic produced tritium and we hope to move forward with the proposal with TVA."
   Ann Harris, a safety advocate who formerly worked for TVA and prevailed in six legal complaints against them over safety issues, submitted a petition for intervention on behalf of her group, We The People, which is made up of people that have come into contact with the industry through some mechanism, whether it be safety issues or public meetings.
   "It's basically been a whistleblower organization. We have a long and bloody history of being the ones that have raised the flag about these plants in communities where they're unsafe," Harris said. She contends the nuclear industry dismisses We The People, however, as a bunch of "anti-nukes."
   "I don't have a problem with nuclear power if they'll make it safe and if they'll manage it safely," she said. "But I've got a real heartburn over the fact that they can't make it safe and they can't tell me that it will be safe."
   According to Harris, people who live beyond the boundaries of Watts Bar and Sequoyah have the misconception that they will not be affected by the tritium decision. "What people don't understand is that your area is in the absolute dumping ground for the downwind radiation," she said.
   TVA's attorneys, Winston & Strawn -- a Washington, D.C.-based industry law firm hired by the agency -- challenged We The People's petition to intervene on Jan. 29, arguing the group did not establish standing. In its petition against Sequoyah, member Phil Carroll, who lives about 12 miles from the nuclear plant, expressed concerns of potential injury due to his close proximity, contending his "life, health and property would be jeopardized by the production of tritium."
   TVA challenged Carroll's "broad assertions of potential injuries," saying that "a petitioner must show an injury that is 'distinct and palpable, particular and concrete,' as opposed to being conjectural or hypothetical."
   Harris said, "The general public does not know the ways and trappings set out by the NRC. There's no sense in them commenting about morals in any of this, because morals are not involved. You have to have an argument."
   Harris, who owns property at Ten Mile, Tenn., and resides in Rockwood -- both within 20 miles of Watts Bar, also cited geographic proximity as a cause of concern. TVA attorneys challenged her petition, stating: "We The People has not demonstrated any means by which the proposed amendment could lead to offsite consequences injurious to Ms. Harris or her property."
   Harris objected to tritium production at Watts Bar based on the increased opportunity for terrorist attacks which would jeopardize her life and the lives of others in surrounding communities. She also raised a concern that the Tennessee River might be rendered unusable should an accident occur.
   TVA's attorneys dismissed the assertions, saying, "In total, Ms. Harris' alleged interests constitute nothing more than hypothesis, fear and conjecture ..."
   "TVA's attorneys have denied that any of these parties attempting intervention have standing or have any rights," Harris said.
   "TVA's got two floors (in the Twin Towers in Knoxville) made up of nothing but lawyers, and they've got to go out and pay somebody to do this?" she asked. "This is physically a David and Goliath fight because the industry and the utilities are basically on the same side and they're trying to keep us from coming over the fence and joining them.
   "They're throwing this out there to people that live in economically depressed areas who do not have access to the monies that these utilities and this government has," she said.
   "According to the law, the public is supposed to be the third party at any and all come-togethers," Harris said. "But any time that they're challenged, they take it as a personal affront and they're attempting to constantly deny everybody (based on) the fact that 'the public is too ignorant' to know what's going on -- I've even had them say that to me.
   "Their boiler plate has not changed in the past 20 to 25 years. I'm not offended that TVA takes this position. It's nothing but they've pushed the right button on their computer-typewriter again and said the very same things they've always said. Nothing's changed at TVA."
   Jeannine Honicker, a 68-year-old grandmother of six and long-time critic of TVA, also petitioned to intervene. In August 1995, Honicker spent more than eight hours in a Knoxville jail after speaking out of turn at a TVA public meeting. She and then 67-year-old Faith Young of Dixon Springs, Tenn., who were instrumental in the mothballing of TVA's Hartsville Nuclear Plant, attended the meeting to raise safety concerns over the start-up of Watts Bar.
   Frustrated that the structuring of TVA's public meetings allowed them an opportunity to voice their concerns to board members during a "listening session" at which board members typically do not respond to questions or comments, the two women decided to get their objections heard on the front end of the meeting. Young stood up first and was restrained in handcuffs by TVA Security. Honicker tried to interject, standing and saying, "I am Jeannine Honicker ..."
   She was immediately grabbed by the left arm, which was broken at the time, and hauled off to jail. Her son, Clifford Honicker, tried to come to his mother's aid and was arrested as well.
   In her petition to intervene, Honicker took issue with the fact that TVA's analysis was made before Sept. 11 and "did not consider the probability or consequences of a fully fueled jetliner being used as a missile and purposely being crashed into a nuclear power plant."
   Changing Watts Bar and Sequoyah to co-generators of nuclear weapons material, Honicker said, changes them from civilian targets to military targets. She raised concerns that TVA should analyze a worst-case scenario, such as what size population would be affected if a terrorist attack at Watts Bar happened to coincide during a University of Tennessee football game, which usually draws a crowd of about 100,000.
   According to DOE, the prevailing wind from Watts Bar blows north, taking in Knoxville, the Tri-Cities and Elizabethton, which lie in a northeasterly direction. Any radiation released during a nuclear event and picked up by the prevailing wind potentially could be carried beyond the boundaries of Watts Bar.
   Honicker also objected based on the non-proliferation treaty.
   "The United States has repeatedly objected to other nations using their commercial nuclear power plants to produce material for nuclear weapons. Will we not be seen as speaking with forked tongue if we say, 'You can't use your nuclear power plants to produce nuclear weapons material for military purposes, but we can,' " she stated.
   Honicker also challenged the decision based on an increased risk to persons living outside TVA's 10-mile "area of interest."
   "The wind knows no artificial boundaries, and the rivers flow past state markers," she said.
   Honicker's petition, as well as one submitted by Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League of Aiken, S.C., also was challenged by TVA attorneys.
   "It took four lawyers 16 pages to answer my three-page request," Honicker said. "I do not live within the correct distance. I live 150 miles away ... I just didn't show that I was going to be personally injured beyond that of a large population. In other words, if it's an attack by a plane, a whole bunch of folks are going to be killed -- and that doesn't make it just to me."
   Honicker, who now resides in La Grange, Ga., and also owns a home in Nashville, contends she does have a stake in the decision regardless of her distance from the reactors because her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren live in Knoxville and potentially could be placed in danger.
   However, she said, the nuclear regulators "don't intend to have a hearing and they're going to get around it any way and every way they can. It wouldn't matter if Jesus Christ, Himself, came down and intervened, He wouldn't be allowed in," she said.