NRC clears second license amendment for BLEU

By Thomas Wilson
A project designed to recycle nuclear weapons uranium into fuel for commercial reactors at the Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. (NFS) plant in Erwin has passed environmental review.
An environmental assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported finding no significant impact from a proposed Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Preparation Facility at the Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. (NFS) site in Erwin.
"That does not mean the NRC staff has approved the amendment," Ken Clark, director of public affairs with NRC's Region IV office in Atlanta, said Friday.
Issued Friday, NRC's "finding of no significant impact" is of the second of three license amendments to allow NFS to pursue the BLEU project. The BLEU project is part of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program to reduce stockpiles of surplus high-enriched (weapons grade) uranium through re-use or disposal as radioactive waste. Re-use is considered a favorable option by DOE because weapons grade uranium is converted to a form unsuited for weapons production and the commercial value of the uranium can be recovered.
NRC approved a license amendments to allow NFS to possess and use Special Nuclear Material at the newly constructed uranyl nitrate building on its Erwin complex. Issued July 7, the uranyl nitrate building amendment is the first of three NFS has proposed as part of the BLEU project. The company has not yet formally applied for the third license amendment, which will be for an oxide conversion facility.
In the second amendment request, filed last October, NFS is seeking NRC permission to begin processing operations at an existing building within the protected area of its Erwin site. The company has not yet formally applied for the third license amendment, which will be for an oxide conversion facility. Together, the three amendments make up the BLEU project.
"One group doing the environmental part found no significant impact," said David Ayres, NRC chief of staff in Atlanta. "In addition, there is a larger group looking at process safety for the workers.
"They came up with several questions about the license amendment."
Sixty-five questions to be exact, according to Ayres, were submitted by NRC's office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards in the agency's Washington, D.C. headquarters to be answered by NFS.
"It is probably above-average," said Ayres of the number of questions, "but it is not outlandishly high."
After NFS submits its answers to the licensing questions, NRC's Region IV office dispatches an inspection team of four to six inspectors to evaluate the different safety systems connected with the down-blending project, Ayres said.
"There aren't many project like this, so it isn't unusual we would have this many questions," said Clark.
NFS currently manufactures high-enriched nuclear reactor fuel and is constructing a new complex at the Erwin site to manufacture low-enriched nuclear reactor fuel.
The NRC approved the first license amendment in July, allowing NFS to begin receiving down-blended, low-enriched uranium from the Savannah River Site complex in South Carolina for eventual use in the BLEU project.
Environmental groups have filed petitions in response to the first two license amendment requests that NFS has filed in connection with the BLEU project. The petitions asked the NRC to conduct a full environmental impact statement on the BLEU project and to hold a public hearing on the matter in Northeast Tennessee before allowing NFS to implement the project.
Administrative Judge Alan S. Rosenthal of the U.S. Atomic Safety Board has delayed a ruling on the petitions until after the third license amendment request is filed by NFS.
Ayres said approval of the first amendment request gave NFS authorization to receive and store the low-enriched uranium from Savannah River.
He also confirmed NFS had begun receiving low-enriched uranium from Savannah River Site for BLEU project. Ayres said NFS was permitted through its state licensing authorizes the company to handle natural uranium. Natural uranium is dissolved in nitrate acid.
"That's what Savannah River is using to down blend the material they are working with," he said. "Once they make the low-enriched solution, they ship it back to NFS."