Citizens grill NRC on BLEU project

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   ERWIN -- Members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission met here Friday to present results of a week-long inspection of Nuclear Fuel Services' uranyl nitrate building associated with the company's proposed Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Project.
   And while the agency reported NFS was within safety requirements for construction of the building, citizens attending the inspection forum drilled agency reps with questions pertaining to existing and potential contamination seeping off-site.
   "We feel the licensee is within safety requirements stated in NRC rules," said Daniel Rich, senior inspector with NRC assigned to NFS. Rich and other NRC officials spent the week conducting the Operational Readiness Review inspection of the uranyl nitrate building.
   While Rich's presentation took only a few minutes, he and NRC officials spent more than one hour answering questions from citizens who attended the meeting.
   Erwin businessman Gerald O'Connor said he had obtained reports regarding levels of contaminants in wells surrounding the NFS property.
   "For seven years and four months I have been fighting with the contamination coming over from NFS," he told the NRC officials. "I am looking at hundreds of thousands in costs to show what I already know."
   The BLEU Project involves the down-blending of 33 metric tons of highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium from Cold War defense stockpiles into low-enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority. The project comes with an estimated price tag of $150 million including $26 million in construction costs, according to NFS.
   NFS has submitted two License Amendment Requests to their Special Nuclear Material License to NRC for the BLEU Preparation facility. The third and final LAR is expected later this year. The company plans to construct and operate three buildings as part of the BLEU Project. Those include an oxide conversion building, effluent processing building, and relocation of down-blending operations within the NFS protected area in a BLEU preparation facility.
   O'Connor, president of Impact Plastics Inc. and Preston Tool & Mold Inc. in Erwin, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against NFS last year alleging contamination had migrated off the NFS property onto his property located in an adjacent industrial park. He presented the commission with a series of reports that indicated levels of off-site nuclear material contamination in some wells that exceeded the maximum levels established under NRC rules.
   According to state and federal documents, O'Connor's company has been collecting its own groundwater data from beneath the Impact Plastics property, located at 1070 Industrial Drive. Sampling data indicated the presence of PCE, or tetrachloroethylene, which is known to cause cancer and TCE, or trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen -- all at elevated concentrations. "Where is it coming from? Bomb fallout?" O'Connor asked.
   He also asked the NRC to spend time talking to people in the community and analyzing potential contaminant levels before approving BLEU.
   "I am looking to you -- you are all that I have," he said. "I'd like to see the NRC do something and send some guys to get down here with the rest of us."
   NRC officials also heard from 73-year-old Willa Early of Washington Street in Erwin regarding a large number of cancer-related deaths of residents in her neighborhood, which lies less than one-half mile from NFS.
   "Fifteen people on my street have cancer, and all of them have died but me," Early told NRC staffers. "You need to take into consideration the people in this area."
   Early said colon cancer claimed her sister's life last year. Early said she had been battling colon cancer since last year. "I just felt I had to come out and say something," she said after the public comment period.
   Regarding existing off-site contamination issues raised by O'Connor, Rich stated that environmental laws regulating contaminant levels were far different today than in the 1960s and 1970s during the plant's early days of operation.
   Rich also said the migration and existing levels of groundwater contamination surrounding NFS or any nuclear site did weigh into the NCR's decision on approving a licensing amendment request.
   NRC Public Information Officer Ken Clark said contaminated groundwater was outside the agency's regulatory jurisdiction.
   NFS submitted the first of three license amendments to the NRC on Feb. 28 to authorize the storage of low-enriched uranium at the UNB. The NRC issued a finding of "No Significant Impact" in July 2002. Construction of the UNB has been ongoing for some time. NRC officials say the LAR does not cover actual construction of the building, and NFS proceeds with their costs "at their own risk" of potentially being denied the third license amendment.
   Environmental groups have challenged the project's safety. Two petitions seeking a public hearing on the project have been filed in U.S. District Court by a consortium of environmental groups including the State of Franklin Sierra Club and Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley and Kathy Helms-Hughes of Butler. A decision by NRC Presiding Judge Alan Rosenthal should be rendered after NFS submits its third and final LAR later this summer.
   According to NRC, substantial increases for uranium and plutonium, attributable to the BLEU Preparation Facility, will be sent to NFS's Waste Water Treatment Facility and discharged to the Nolichucky River.
   Helms-Hughes, who attended the meeting as a citizen rather than in a professional capacity, asked NRC officials about ongoing operations at another building located on the NFS site. She specifically referred to the company role in storing uranyl nitrate produced at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
   If low-enriched uranium at Savannah River directly correlated to the BLEU Project was already being shipped to NFS, the company could be violating the National Environmental Policy Act standards set down by the Department of Energy, Helms said. Rich said he could not speak directly to activities occurring at Savannah River Site, but NRC and NFS officials said no uranyl nitrate material was presently being stored or processed at NFS.
   "I don't think it's possible for them to ship low-enriched uranium nitrate here without my knowledge," said Rich. He added the semantics of how the BLEU Project correlated to any ongoing work between NFS and the Savannah River Site would be best addressed by the NRC's Office of General Counsel.
   NRC officials maintain the agency has made no decision at this time on the NFS request. The agency reported the Environmental Assessment submitted for the BLEU Project covers all three licensing amendments. However, the agency reserves the right to order additional environmental assessments of all three LARs if deemed necessary by the NRC.
   "We don't decide whether it is a great idea or not," said NRC director of reactor projects, Loren Plisco, of the BLEU Project. "We have regulations in place to be followed."
   After the meeting, NFS spokesman Tony Treadway stated that O'Connor was comparing contamination levels based on drinking water standards, and no water was being used for drinking by O'Connor or anyone else on that property. "There is no drinking water coming onto that property," Treadway stated.
   Treadway also said "no negotiations" had taken place involving NFS and Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for the shipping of nuclear "tailings" for storage from Hartsfield to Erwin. LES had considered a site in Unicoi County to construct a $1 billion uranium enrichment plant last year. Following local opposition from Unicoi residents, the company eventually selected Trousdale County in Middle Tennessee as the site for the enrichment plant.
   NFS will host and manage the UNB for Framatome ANP, a multinational energy conglomerate with headquarters in Paris, France. The building will essentially serve as a storage facility for uranium processed in the BLEU project.
   "This project is completely safe," Treadway stated. "This thing has to be up and running by this time next year."