Tennessee Valley: A nuclear future?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories related to these issues.
In the book, "If You Poison Us," author Peter Eichstaedt told of his investigation into the plight of Navajo uranium miners who worked during the Cold War to provide a supply of uranium to be used in atomic bomb production.
   Many of those hired worked in underground mines in the Four Corners area without benefit of ventilation. Radioactive dust settled on their clothes. They drank water dripping down the walls of the mines and ate their lunches, oblivious to radioactive contamination.
   From 1950 to 1980, state and federal agencies kept from the Dineh (Navajo) mounting evidence of the dangers of uranium mining. Twenty years later, the federal government imposed safety standards. In 1990, Congress enacted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which provided $100,000 to miners or their survivors diagnosed with cancer or respiratory illness.
   In July 2001, the Federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act took effect, providing compensation of up to $150,000 and medical expenses to those who worked in the nuclear weapons industry during the Cold War era.
   Some of those workers were employed in Erwin at a facility then operated by W.R. Grace and now known as NFS Inc.


While NFS was getting off the ground in Erwin, Davison Chemical Co. established another company in 1962 in West Valley, N.Y., also known as Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. The NFS-West Valley facility was the first private plant in the United States to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
   In spring 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission issued permits to NFS, then a subsidiary of W.R. Grace Co., to begin construction of a fuel reprocessing facility at West Valley. In 1965, NFS was granted a license to receive and store fuel at its West Valley reprocessing facility. NFS-West Valley was acquired by Getty Oil in 1969 and received government and commercially generated fuel until the early 1970s.
   In 1972, NFS halted all reprocessing operations at West Valley in order to increase capacity and alter the facility to meet new regulatory guidelines. After four years of negotiations with federal and state authorities, NFS decided in 1976 not to reopen the plant due to cost-prohibitive safety measures imposed by the NRC, according to the General Accounting Office. In 1980, NFS exercised its right to leave the site after its lease expired, transferring ownership and responsibility for approximately 600,000 gallons of high-level nuclear waste to the state of New York.
   During its operation as NFS, the plant recovered 1,926 kilograms (kg) of plutonium and shipped almost 80 percent of the material to the Atomic Energy Commission. The remaining 396 kg was either kept by utility companies, sold to industry, or purchased by NFS.
   Separated plutonium, totaling 1,530 kg, also was shipped to Hanford from West Valley -- including 95 kg from NFS in Erwin.
   Radioactive and hazardous chemical wastes are now leaching from West Valley into Cattaraugus Creek, which flows along 18 miles of the Seneca Nation before emptying into Lake Erie.


   NFS is about to embark on a new mission -- the downblending of 33 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium from the Department of Energy into low-enriched fuel to power reactors at TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama.
   TVA and DOE signed a memorandum of understanding in 1997 to investigate commercial use of "off-spec" highly enriched uranium. A consortium made up of Framatome-Cogema Fuels of Lynchburg, Va., Siemens Power Corp. of Richland, Wash., and NFS submitted the best proposal. Framatome and Siemens later merged into Framatome ANP and TVA then negotiated with DOE and the Framatome ANP/NFS consortium to complete the project.
   The 33 metric-ton surplus will have to be blended with about 460 metric tons of natural uranium before it can be used as fuel. Just over two months ago, TVA contracted with Cameco Corp. of Canada to supply the "natural uranium" blend stock, in the form of uranium trioxide.
   In March 1999, COGEMA of France joined Cameco and Nukem, the U.S. affiliate of a German firm, in an agreement with Techsnabexport (Tenex), the commercial arm of the Russian Federal Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), for the purchase of "natural uranium" derived from highly enriched uranium contained in Russian nuclear weapons.
   Under the agreement, 500 metric tons of highly enriched Russian uranium are to be diluted in Russia and delivered to the United States as low-enriched uranium.
   In 1994, NFS that the Erwin company and its partner, AlliedSignal, had signed formal documents to create a joint stock company with several Russian entities to implement a landmark "weapons to plowshares" Russian-American agreement. According to the plan, weapons grade material would be converted at Russian facilities owned by MINATOM and in the United States at NFS.
   Also in 1994, U.S. Enrichment Corp., signed a $12 billion, 20-year contract, termed "Megatons to Megawatts" to convert 500 metric tons of highly enriched Russian uranium into low-enriched fuel which it would sell to its customers to generate electricity.
   In January 2000, USEC signed a contract with TVA, agreeing to provide uranium enrichment services and uranium feed to fuel TVA's Sequoyah and Watts Bar reactors. Later in 2000, USEC and TVA inked a deal for TVA to supply 10 years of low-cost electricity to USEC's Paducah, Ky., plant. It also was agreed that TVA will become USEC's primary electricity provider as the now-private company's contracts expire.