Enviro groups win, lose in BLEU Project ruling

By Thomas Wilson

   An administrative law judge for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted federal standing to only one of three petitioners seeking a public hearing about the Blended Low Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Project to be carried out at the Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. site in Erwin.
   In a ruling issued Wednesday, NRC Judge Alan S. Rosenthal granted standing to the State of Franklin Group of the Sierra Club but shot down three similar requests made by another environmental group, 16 private citizens and a Carter County property owner.
   The Sierra Group included fellow environmental organizations the Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, and Tennessee Environmental Council along with Kathy Helms-Hughes, formerly of Butler. The groups filed petitions with the NRC seeking standing to have a public hearing regarding the BLEU Project. Fifteen Northeast Tennessee citizens represented by a Greeneville attorney also filed separate petitions seeking standing for a public hearing.
   The Blended Low Enriched Uranium Project is a 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 down blending.
   NRC staff has already approved two of three license amendment requests to the NFS Special Nuclear Materials license. The first license amendment application, approved by NRC in June 2003, grants NFS the ability to store LEU-bearing material in its Uranyl Nitrate Building.
   The second amendment enables NFS to process approximately half of the BLEU Project's 33 metric tons of surplus highly enriched uranium. A third license amendment, submitted by NFS in October of 2003 seeks authority to construct and operate an Oxide Conversion Building (OCB) and related Effluent Processing Building (EPB), which is currently under review by the NRC.
   In his order, Rosenthal writes, "it is beyond civil that Sierra has satisfied the area of concern requirement." This is apparent from an examination of the concerns set forth in the February 2, 2004 hearing request addressed to the third (OCB/EPB) license amendment application.
   In it's hearing request, Sierra said that, for a wide variety of reasons, the NRC Staff has failed to comply with the dictates of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Rosenthal specifically pointed (id. at 12) to what Sierra had deemed to be a concession in the June 2002 Environmental Assessment that "operation of the BLEU Complex, including the OCB, the EPB, and associated storage tanks, poses significant hazards to human health and the environment."
   "Manifestly, whether or not ultimately found to be meritorious, Sierra's environmental concerns are germane", Rosenthal writes, and includes "The same may be said of its three specified safety concerns." According to Sierra's hearing request, NFS has failed to demonstrate that it has made adequate arrangements to fund the decommissioning of the OCB and EPB at the end of the facility's life" that it "can and will comply" with certain operational requirements imposed by the Code of Federal Rules; and that it can be counted on to "make complete and accurate reports to the NRC." Rosenthal found Sierra had, in each instance, assigned a reason for the concern in the hearing request.
   Pertaining to Sierra's petition regarding a potential accident involving highly enriched uranium, Rosenthal writes, "there is little room for serious doubt that, were an accident of the kind postulated in the EA to occur, persons residing within a short distance of the Erwin site might well be threatened with injury."
   In denying standing for Helms-Hughes, Rosenthal writes the fact that Helms "does not currently reside on her Tennessee property" but rather resides away from the property, "would seem of itself to defeat any claim that the BLEU Project threatens Ms. Helms-Hughes with the injury-in-fact upon which standing must rest."
   He writes that Helms-Hughes' burden extends to supplying some good reason to believe that, 20 miles away from the site, the emissions might prove harmful rather than referring to the project's environmental assessment.
   Rosenthal also denied standing to the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League citing the group's failure to explain why the BLEU Project would harm Blue Ridge members in the Erwin vicinity. Rosenthal writes that it is not readily apparent how it might nonetheless occasion harm to Blue Ridge members in the vicinity of the Erwin site and the hearing request provides no illumination in that respect.
   Regarding the petition by the 16 citizens, Rosenthal writes, "It appears without contradiction that no chemical processes or reactions would take place in connection with that limited activity and that there would be no discharges of chemical or radiological contaminants into the Nolichucky River. That being so, it seems hardly likely that the employment of the River as a source of drinking water or for recreational activities would be at all adversely impacted."
   NFS spokesman Tony Treadway said in a statement released Thursday that the company believed Rosenthal "properly ruled" in denying the petitions of most individuals and groups. "The ruling reduces the issues related to the matter and is a step forward," said Treadway.
   Rosenthal is expected to review written presentations of the BLEU Project submitted by the company and the Sierra Club chapter.