Nuclear Fuels Services receives annual review

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   ERWIN -- Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) met here Wednesday morning in a public meeting to discuss the company's License Performance Review (LPR).
   The NRC review -- covering the period of Feb. 17, 2002 through Jan. 18, 2003 -- reports that NFS has continued to conduct its activities safely and securely. The LPR found two violations and four non-cited violations were identified for failure to follow procedures in material control and accounting and security areas at the facility. One of the violations and one of the non-cited violations involved the failure of supervisory inspection reports.
   Kerry Shutt of NFS told NRC officials that the company had increased employee training and the addition of over 200 new hires had stretched the companies ability to bring all employees up to speed on exacting compliance orders.
   "That has been a challenge for NFS bringing in new employees and making sure they receive training to follow compliance," said Shutt. He said the company invested over 360,000 man-hours in training new employees.
   One of the violations and one of the non-cited violations involved the failures of supervisors' inspection reports.
   John Nagy, assistant to vice president of Safety and Regulatory, said the company had implemented bar-coded labels and bar-coded storage locals to improve inspections. Safety controls implemented in mid-November and designed to minimize human error had already began to show success, he said.
   "An 80 percent reduction in errors has been seen comparing the time before mid-November as compared to after mid-November," Nagy said.
   The LPR also reported that no specific areas needing improvement were identified for the Radiological Controls section of the review beyond the procedural compliance problems associated with radiological protection and decommissioning covered in the Safety Operations area. The 2002 review differs from previous years in that the report now lists only "areas needing improvement" and does not report a licensee's strengths.
   Under the LPR review's area of special topics, the review reads that NFS needed to include additional information about the license amendment applications for the Uranyl Nitrate Building and the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium Preparation Facility.
   Following the review with the agency and company officials, NRC fielded a question-and-answer session with citizens who attended the hearing.
   Linda Modica, director of the Upper East Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned how reliable NRC inspection procedures were with NFS. "How is NFS's data confirmed by the NRC?" Modica asked NRC representatives.
   The NRC's director of the Nuclear Materials Safety Division in Atlanta, Douglas Collins, said the agency generally conducted inspections on issues ranging from safeguards to effusion of materials into the environment once a year. He said ensuring the company kept its own quality control system was part of regulatory enforcement by the NRC.
   Robert Pierson, director of the Fuel Cycle Safety and Safeguards Division at NRC, added that two to three NRC regulators were on site at NFS in any given week in addition to the permanent on-site NRC representative.
   "We will do more inspections if there are problems found by inspectors," said Pierson.
   In questioning the pertinence of NFS and NRC data confirmation, Modica cited inaccurate effusion data collected approximately two years back regarding NRC. "That doesn't give the public a tremendous amount of comfort when we have a (suspect) inspection," she said.
   Trudy Wallack, a representative of the Friends of the Nolichchuky River Valley, also questioned documented discoveries of contaminated groundwater near the plant. She and Modica are members of a consortium of environmental groups challenging NFS's request to amend their licensing with NRC for the company's Blended Low-Enriched Uranium Project.
   The "BLEU Project" involves the down-blending of 33 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. NFS has submitted two amendments with a third amendment request to NRC expected to be filed before mid-year.
   A local company -- Impact Plastics of Erwin -- has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against NFS alleging groundwater contamination from NFS has moved onto his business site.
   Pierson acknowledged that groundwater contamination had been detected involving NFS. He cited that the company had operated under regulations dating back to the 1960s and 1970s when regulations pertaining to off-site groundwater contamination were far less stringent than today. He added that when companies submitted amendments to expand, they were turned down if the NRC found them in violation of previous or modern contaminant levels.
   "We are dealing with several of these companies and we are not allowing all of them to expand," Pierson said.
   BLEU Project opponents have challenged the company's amendment citing numerous public health and environmental risks potentially posed by the project. NFS has countered the petitioners have no standing to demand a hearing on the license amendments. NFS spokesman Tony Treadway stated Wednesday that the BLEU Project had been reviewed and green-lighted by several state and federal agencies as well as an independent environmental organization.
   NFS submitted the first of three license amendments to the NRC on Feb. 28 to authorize the storage of low-enriched uranium at its Uranyl Nitrate Storage Building (UNB). The NRC issued a finding of No Significant Impact to the first of three amendments submitted by NFS for the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium Project in July 2002.
   Treadway said the amendments did not preclude the company from going forward with building the Uranyl Nitrate building, which has been under construction for some months.
   NFS will host and manage the building. The UNB site is owned by Framatome ANP, an international engineering and nuclear services conglomerate with headquarters in Paris and principal subsidiaries in the United States and Germany. Framatome ANP is co-owned by AREVA which holds a 66 percent share and Siemens which holds a 34 percent ownership share. The company has a total workforce of approximately 14,000.
   The LPR found the company's license amendment applications did not include nuclear criticality safety analyses, fire hazards analysis, adequate demonstrations of compliance with baseline design criteria, and adequate commitments to management measures, according to the review.
   Pierson said NFS was one of the first companies who sought a license amendment application for BLEU under the NRC regulation "Part 70" that governs domestic licensing of special nuclear materials facilities. Passed as a regulation in October 2000, the regulation establishes procedures and criteria for the issuance of licenses to acquire, receive, use, and transfer special nuclear materials.
   "It has been a long process for NFS and the NRC," said Pierson of adjustment to the Part 70 regulation.
   After the meeting Modica said she appreciated the NRC commitment to regulation and safety. She added Sierra and other citizens planned to hold the agency -- and NFS -- to the standards set down by law. "The NRC folks were open and forthcoming, but we still have questions we want answered," she said. "They did provide us additional avenues we did not know we had before now."