Environmental assessments don't tell whole story say petitioners

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Petitioners seeking a public hearing for a uranium enrichment project believe a comprehensive environmental assessment -- covering both past and potential hazards -- is paramount to making the public aware of the potential dangers the project poses.
   Nuclear Fuel Services has requested two amendments to their Special Nuclear Material License to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to authorize modification to its special nuclear material processing operations in the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Preparation Facility at nuclear fuel facilities in Erwin.
   One of the two petitions requesting a public hearing on the project was filed by a consortium of environmental groups including Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley and the State of Franklin Group of the Sierra Club. A second petition was filed by Kathy Helms-Hughes of Butler.
   Attorney Diane Curran, who is representing the Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley, said the NRC allowed NFS to submit what "essentially looks like one license application" in three separate parts.
   "It has forced anybody who wants to get involved in raising concerns about the project to file three separate requests for a hearing on what is one integrated project," said Curran.
   The amendment applications were divided into three parts: Part one was filed Feb. 28, 2002 for construction of the Uranyl Nitrate Storage Building to house the project. The second amendment application filed Oct. 11, 2002, covers the actual downblending of weapons grade uranium. The third application is expected to be submitted later this summer. A hearing on the petitions will not occur until the third license amendment is filed, Curran said.
   "In my experience, this is unusual," added Curran. "It becomes particularly cumbersome to have a hearing on a chopped up project like this when you are looking at environmental issues. We don't want to be separately litigating the same issues over and over again."
   Attorneys for the petitioners filed a motion to combine the three amendment requests into one hearing, which was approved by a federal judge. "We are still going to file separate hearing requests on each application but there is only going to be one hearing," Curran said. The petitions also included a comprehensive Environmental Assessment (EA) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be conducted by NRC on the project.
   The Friends' petition includes actress Park Overall -- a Greeneville native whose work includes the TV series "Empty Nest." Overall brings her saucy nature to opposing what she feels is a potential public safety threat to all of East Tennessee.
   "The BLEU process you can't segment because one is not as bad, two is not as bad, three is not as bad," said Overall. "Put them all together, they are bad."
   The Friends' petition contends that the EA prepared by the NRC is not sufficient to support the company's license amendment request. The petition also reads that the project's existing EA does not serve as approval for the three proposed activities, but assesses the environmental impacts of the actions.
   The petition reads "The EA acknowledges that operation of the BPF is dangerous. The conversion of (highly enriched uranium) materials to low-enriched uranium dioxide at the BLEU project will require the handling, processing and storage of radioactive material and hazardous chemicals. An uncontrolled release of these materials from accidents could pose a risk to the environment as well as to workers and public health and safety."
   In her petition, Helms-Hughes writes that the water springs located in the vicinity of the lake -- all northeast of NFS -- are the source of drinking water for the city of Elizabethton and the communities of Hampton and Valley Forge.
   "It is not unreasonable to conclude that plutonium that has been carried on the wind from NFS has been deposited downwind in those springs, as well as Watauga Lake, and that those plutonium particles have bound themselves to invisibly small bits of rock or clay," Helms-Hughes writes in her petition.
   She points to research conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that has shown that plutonium attach invisibly to small bits of rock or clay in underground water, and that even when the particles were filtered out, they contained almost all of the radioactive material.
   Overall said petitioners wanted a legal EIS that accurately estimated the potential and past environmental impact facing citizens. "I want the people to come forward. They don't need to be afraid," said Overall.
   Curran said the company's environmental statements NFS admits to planned releases of contaminants -- albeit characterized as "very small" in the existing EA -- are going to go up.
   "The levels of contaminant in the water supply are going to go up," she said. "What they don't account for is, over the years they have had releases of contaminants into the environment that were not planned."
   The petitions requesting the hearing are expected to be heard by Alan Rosenthal, Presiding Officer of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for the NRC in Washington, D.C.
   "Any level of exposure to radiation has some level of risk to it," said Curran. "It is really unknown what the future may bring."