Engineer says down blending uranium is needed, but so is heavy oversight

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- A nuclear physicist believes downblending bomb-grade uranium is a necessary project to eliminate weapons stockpiles, but warns a community must be actively involved in monitoring the process.
   Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington, discussed called nuclear materials and the "BLEU Project" of Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin at a free lecture held at East Tennessee State University on Sunday night.
   "This is a project that needs to be done, and it has a poor characteristic for the community where it is to be done," Makhijani told an audience of approximately 30 people. "It should not be accepted by any community without very stringent safeguards."
   He said remnants of the Cold War arms race included massive stockpiles of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium that would remain radioactive and hazardous for thousands of years to come.
   The BLEU project is part of a U.S Department of Energy program to reduce stockpiles of surplus highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium (HEU) through reuse or disposal as radioactive waste. The BLEU Project takes a weapons-usable form of uranium and blends it with natural uranium to make low enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used in weapons. The LEU is shipped to NFS, which will prepare it for fabrication into a fuel for use in Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry reactors, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
   Beginning with the nuclear age during the latter stages of World War II, nuclear secrets had become the most guarded for any nation. Makhijani likened the nuclear age to a type of secular priesthood that kept the secrets of nuclear materials and weapons.
   The Cold War sent the United States and the Soviet Union into a massive nuclear weapons build up with thousands of metric tons worth of HEU topping warheads at strategic points around the globe. "It was kind of like a nuclear Viagra race," Makhijani quipped.
   When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, both countries were essentially left with massive stockpiles of HEU and no place to blow up.
   Environmental groups and a private citizen 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.
   Makhijani said Russia had released approximately 500 tons of surplus weapons grade uranium after the end of the Cold War. The former nemesis of the United States had been down blending uranium for some time. "This job is being done in Russia," he said.
   An environmental assessment in October by NRC reported a finding of no significant impact from a proposed BLEU preparation facility at the NFS site in Erwin. NRC approved a license amendment to allow NFS to possess and use Special Nuclear Material at the newly constructed uranyl nitrate building on its Erwin complex.
   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.
   Makhijani said the nation's dependence on nuclear reactors for electricity made nuclear power a standard for the foreseeable future. He cited the recent blackout in July that left millions in the Northeast without power as an example of the nation's convergent power grid relied on by each power-providing structure to remain alive.
   "It is a fact of life that we can't switch off these power plants," said Makhijani who received his Ph.D. in engineering with a specialty in nuclear fusion from the University of California at Berkeley.
   The Department of Energy performed an environmental impact statement regarding the BLEU Project process in 1996. The TVA reviewed the EIS and issued its own Record of Decision on the project in 2000, thus validating the EIS conclusions. In July 2002, the NRC issued an environmental assessment following review by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
   An "honest" EIS was "hard to come by", according to Makhijani, who said each community where a potential uranium downblending process was proposed must advocate the most accurate EIS possible.
   "Before a downblend should be done, it is the obligation of the government to do a proper EIS," he said. Makhijani faulted the nuclear establishment of the government for failing to provide answers and safety to the public during the 1940s and 1950s when nuclear energy was touted as a clean, safe energy source.
   Makhijani recommended a trust account funded by both the government and any corporation involved in a downblend project be established that was independent of either's control. The account could serve as a regulatory resource for the community where the process was occurring for years to come.