Carter, Unicoi citizens voice opposition to nuclear facility

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   While Unicoi County awaits word this week on whether it is in the final running for a $1.1 billion uranium enrichment plant, citizens from Carter and Unicoi counties have begun voicing their opposition in letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
   Meanwhile, the Town Hall of Unicoi was filled to overflowing with concerned citizens on both sides of the issue during a meeting Monday night of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen as it addressed a proposal to do away with zoning -- a move which would eliminate restrictions to the Tinker Road site under consideration by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for the gas centrifuge plant.
   Linda Grubbs Horton of Elizabethton in a letter to the NRC written July 25 and made public Monday states: "I am enclosing some information to show you how adamantly a large group of citizens oppose the location of the proposed Urenco facility here."
   The letter included a flyer from "The Valley Beautiful?," a local group of citizens opposed to the LES plant which will employ gas centrifuge technology developed by Urenco and now used at its facilities in Europe. The gas centrifuge technology has not been tried yet in the United States.
   "The Valley Beautiful?" flyer asks, among other questions: Why were Unicoi County residents not informed? Who are the companies involved and what are their track records? What about storage and transportation of radioactive material?
   The letter also raised concerns about terrorism, health concerns and environmental risks. "We are entitled to open and frank answers to these and any other questions that citizens may have. ... We need to learn more and decide for ourselves whether this is something we want," the flyer states.
   Attachments to the letter included information from Dr. David Close, a professor at East Tennessee State University. According to Dr. Close, when low-grade uranium ore is moved from one processing plant to another it is usually in the form of uranium oxide, more commonly known as "yellow cake."
   "In preparation for enrichment, uranium is first converted from uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride. Uranium hexafluoride then goes to a plant that produces enriched uranium hexafluoride. The enrichment process could produce uranium suitable for a nuclear power plant (about 4-5 percent U235) or it could be enriched to 93.5 percent for weapons or to 97.5 percent for Naval reactors.
   "At the level used in a power plant, uranium hexafluoride is not very radioactive. However, it is very dangerous material. If uranium hexafluoride comes in contact with water, even water vapor in the air, it forms two materials: Hydrofluoric acid, which dissolves glass and is a dangerous irritant. It can cause pulmonary edema, respiratory damage and severe burns; [and] Uranyl fluoride, [which] is a heavy metal toxin. It can cause kidney damage."
   Dr. Close also stated that uranium enrichment produces PCB's, chlorine, ammonia, nitrates, zinc, arsenic and hexavalent chromium. The hit movie "Erin Brockovich" detailed the plight of California families who suffered various types of cancer traced to Pacific Gas & Electric's use of hexavalent chromium in its processes.
   The document submitted by Horton shows photographs of the Tinker Road site after heavy rains hit Aug. 13, 2001. The pictures show water rising nearly to the windows of a car near Tinker Road, a flooded tomato field on Tinker Road, and another picture with water up to the door of a mobile home with rescue workers and a raft in the foreground.
   Another letter from Phyllis Fox of Unicoi asks the NRC to reject the LES proposal to build a uranium enrichment plant in Unicoi. "Our community has the normal concerns which you would hear anywhere, such as health, safety, and property values. The fact that we already have Nuclear Fuel [Services Inc.] and Studsvik close by is frightening enough, as is our high cancer rate; but the proposed site for this plant is in a flood plain and is about a mile from an elementary school ..."
   Following Monday night's meeting, Unicoi Alderman Johnny Lynch said, "After a lot of pressure from the concerned citizens who showed up there," a motion to eliminate countywide zoning was tabled.
   "They first started talking about they were just going to do away with zoning," Lynch said. Later, it was proposed that zoning be eliminated countywide except for the proposed Tinker Road site.
   "Well you can't do that," Lynch said. Alderman Ted Hopson then proposed to table the motion until after LES decides where it will locate the plant. Lynch countered with an amendment to the motion, "that we just table the motion, period," which was approved by the board.
   In a prepared statement to the board, Lynch said: "To abolish zoning would be a grave mistake for our town. You talk about control of your land. Let me tell you what control is: Control is when you can stop a junkyard or an asphalt plant or an unsafe polluting industry.
   "Control is when the mayor of a town can tell you to sell your house or they will build a plant around it, and you can look him in the eye and tell him where he can shove it. That's control. We want to control our own destiny and through zoning, we can ...
   "It is obvious to everyone, Mr. Mayor, as to the true intent of your actions. A member of the Erwin Economic Development Board told me that you assured them that you could handle the zoning issue for the proposed nuclear plant. Is this your way of handling it? The only thing that needs to be abolished here is the mayor.
   "The idea of abolishing zoning is counterproductive to the economic health and interests of this town," Lynch said. "When we formed this town eight years ago, one of the reasons we were doing this was to control our own destiny. We wanted to have a say in what happens in our community. We didn't want uncontrolled growth; we wanted controlled growth. We didn't want asphalt plants, smokestack industry and strip joints. Zoning is the best thing going for this town. It is our protection from all of this."