Greeneville actress takes on tough new role: Challenging NFS

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


(Part 1 of two-part series)

   She's no dumb blonde.
   Park Overall. The sharp-tongued Appalachian nurse "Laverne" who performed opposite Richard Mulligan on the NBC comedy "Empty Nest" has a new role: Crusader against Nuclear Fuel Services Inc.'s "BLEU Project," or Blended Low Enriched Uranium for those who hate acronyms.
   NFS was subcontracted by the Framatome ANP consortium, of which it is a member, to down-blend 33 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium into low-enriched fuel for Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.
   Overall, through Washington attorney Diane Curran, filed a petition Aug. 8 seeking a hearing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on behalf of herself and four environmental groups -- the State of Franklin Group/Sierra Club, Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley Inc., Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and Tennessee Environmental Council.
   Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and 15 Northeast Tennessee residents also requested a hearing. All claimed they should have a say in whether the project proceeds because of potential impacts to their health, drinking water, property values and the environment.
   In the early 1990s, the Greeneville actress brought attention to what she calls the "tragedy of the Pigeon River" after publicizing pollution emitted from the Champion paper mill in Canton, N.C. Since that time, the paper mill has evolved into an employee-run facility and employees have worked with the community to reduce pollution.
   NFS manufactures uranium fuel for use in U.S. Navy submarines and performs uranium processing, purification and recovery services for the Department of Energy and commercial entities.
   The BLEU Project would be financially beneficial to the Department of Energy, which would spend less than if it had to dispose of the surplus high-enriched uranium, and TVA would pay less for fuel.
   According to NFS spokesman Tony Treadway, the TVA project involves about $150 million. "That includes the work and construction of an NFS down-blending operation inside the plant and the new Framatome conversion facility outside the fence of NFS."
   Overall claims the difference in NFS making fuel for Navy submarines and down-blending uranium for Browns Ferry boils down to dollars and cents. "This expansion is not to do with 'God, America, and Apple Pie.' This expansion is to do with profit. And that profit is not going to be shared with the people of East Tennessee.
   "This is about flooding the market with foreign uranium. NFS's own union workers, if they would care to check the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by DOE, is against this. Even LES (Louisiana Energy Services) was against it, according to the draft comments," she said.
   Environmental impact
   Overall noted that NRC's Environmental Assessment (EA), which was based on information prepared by NFS, states: "Current environmental monitoring stations do not provide adequate coverage of the expanded site area for the BLEU Complex. In addition, the current monitoring program lacks adequate coverage for groundwater in the vicinity of the BLEU complex."
   She said the EA goes on to say, "Under the proposed action both uranium and thorium air emissions are expected to increase by a factor of 4 to 5 times current levels ... The long site history has resulted in some areas of the site, including groundwater, becoming contaminated with radiological and chemical constituents."
   On Aug. 3, 2000, NFS notified the NRC that it had possibly exceeded its annual effluent discharge limits in the month of May and had shut down its Waste Water Treatment Facility until an NRC inspection team could determine whether it had violated its license.
   In order to prevent shutdown of the processing facility, NFS submitted an application to NRC on Aug. 9, 2000, requesting an "expedited amendment" to its Special Nuclear Material license from concentration-based levels to dose-based levels so that it would not be in violation of its license. NRC granted the amendment on Oct. 27 allowing NFS to adjust its liquid effluent discharge action levels.
   NFS also submitted a license amendment request in April 2002 for its North Site Decommissioning Project after problems developed during cleanup of its Radiological Burial Ground. "Due to the high groundwater table in this area, the floor of the excavation can be under as much as 4 feet of water. Though the water from the area is pumped out of the excavation 16 hours a day for days at a time, the water is continually replaced by groundwater ..." the document states.
   Overall said East Tennesseans should note NFS's attorneys in Washington "have asked the NRC to deny standing to petitioners with cancer, with children in the school near NFS, anyone who takes their water from the Nolichucky, anyone who lives on the river -- in fact, to everyone who asked for a fair and open hearing. We are confident they will not be successful," she said.
   "I would like to alert NFS that we are not new to environmental justice. We are experienced, educated, and concerned individuals which make up respected groups that have funding and experienced legal counsel. Let us have an honest and open dialogue."
   Overall said NFS attorneys also claimed that petitioner David Byrd of Unicoi, who has cancer, lacked standing. "Mr. Byrd said, 'I live downwind from NFS. I don't want to breathe polluted air that is any worse than what it already is. I have a choice about cigarette smoke, but I would not have a chance to get away from this.'
   "They said 'Mr. Byrd's only injury is an existing cancer which could not possibly be related to the proposed license amendment.'"
   Overall said high groundwater concentrations of uranium and technetium-99 have been identified at NFS and some is now being found outside plant boundaries.
   NFS responded to petitioners' objections with a press release. Overall said, "I was surprised to find that they admit so much groundwater contamination, but Tony Treadway [NFS spokesperson] states that there is no threat to the river. He does not discuss the uranium and thorium NFS will be putting into the air.
   "I would really like to play chess with someone who has read his own material. I would like for them to put forward someone that can legitimately discuss the dangers that they have written themselves in their own Environmental Assessment."
   Overall said petitioners have been unable to locate a site-specific environmental report for the BLEU project. Petitioners found a June 1996 Environmental Impact Statement done by the Department of Energy before NFS was selected as the final site for the down-blending project.
   "We have the EIS, but it is mysteriously missing three pages relevant to NFS. We could not get the public comments [a separate document]. In order for anyone to get the entire EIS you have to petition the NRC under the Freedom of Information Act. However, the NRC in Oak Ridge 'can't lend it out,' 'couldn't find it,' or 'will let you read it now that they've found it, but you can't make copies.' More maddening is to research these documents on ADAMS," where information is made available to the public.
   "In light of these and other problems identified at the site," Overall said, "If NFS and the NRC are so concerned about our safety, why are they dodging a bona fide Environmental Impact Statement?"