ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — Nuclear Fuel Services is one step from having a local citizens group out of the process as it seeks a license amendment so it can produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), something the 65-year-old facility hasn’t previously done.

The Erwin Citizens Awareness Network (ECAN), requested an opportunity to intervene while the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reviews NFS’s request.

The nuclear fuel facility in Erwin got a sole-source contract in early 2021 to build a line that can use natural or depleted uranium (DU) in a process that converts uranium oxide to purified, highly enriched uranium.

Outside the Nuclear Fuel Services facility in Erwin, Tenn. NFS is seeking an amendment to its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license that would allow it to convert uranium oxide to highly enriched uranium. (WJHL photo)

Three judges for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) ruled that none of four “contentions” ECAN laid out in a Dec. 12, 2022 hearing justified its intervention as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) considers NFS’s request. ECAN attorney Terry Lodge appealed that ruling Feb. 24.

“What we’re asking for is the licensing board to agree with us simply that we have articulated, outlined some problems and objections that require greater investigation by the company and the NRC,” Lodge told News Channel 11 Monday.

An NRC frequently asked questions webpage about NFS with a great deal of information is available HERE.

NFS was awarded $57.5 million to work on building the new line. A separate “phase two” contract with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would be for actual conversion, which is what would require changes to its NRC license.

Refusal by the NRC to amend NFS’s license would presumably prevent the company from advancing to that step.

Currently, the Department of Energy (DOE) Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge performs that work.

In ECAN’s initial motion to intervene, Lodge cited concerns with NFS’s historic safety record and the fact that as a private company under the NRC, it isn’t subject to as strict of quality assurance standards as the DOE-regulated, publicly run Y-12. The City of Oak Ridge voiced opposition to the NFS contract when it was awarded and cited its own safety concerns as well as concerns about job losses there.

ECAN also argued that the HEU would add capacity to the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpiles and should be more closely scrutinized due to nuclear proliferation protocols. They also said consideration should be given to not building the line at all, particularly since the old Y-12 line continues to operate.

The appeal goes to the NRC’s five-member appointed board now. NRC staff and NFS have until March 21 to file responses to ECAN’s appeal and Lodge said he expects the board to rule within two to three months after that.

“I’m not optimistic at all, because this is a very predictable pattern of how the NRC dismisses citizen complaints and objections,” Lodge told News Channel 11. “It’s absolutely formulaic.”

The agency, he said, has a pattern of setting an unreasonably high standard to allow for citizen involvement: “‘Show us incredibly overwhelming evidence by us giving the public any of our time to actually weigh these problems.'”

What would NFS do?

NFS’s primary mission has been producing fuel for the nation’s nuclear submarine fleet. It’s also been involved in “downblending” uranium to less radioactive levels for various purposes, including reduction in nuclear weapons.

But Lodge said, and reporting on the new contract supports, that the NNSA contract would eventually result in production of weapons-grade HEU.

A March 4, 2021 Defense Daily article was headlined “Nuclear Fuel Services Gets $57M NNSA Contract to Prep for Weapons Uranium Work in Tennessee.”

That article said NNSA “needs purified highly enriched uranium to make secondary stages for refurbished nuclear warheads and bombs.”

NFS’s own steelworkers union also mentioned when the contract was approved that the work would be for products used in the United States’ thermonuclear weapons arsenal.

“What we’re saying is the production line at NFS is part of the nuclear weapons manufacturing and assembly complex and … we need to understand where NFS factors into that and whether or not it might be contributing to the spread, or at least the growth in number, of nuclear weapons,” Lodge said.

NFS lawyers essentially denied that, but Lodge pointed in his appeal to what he said are numerous suggestions that it is.

NFS, in its answer to ECAN’s first intervention filing, wrote that the license amendment request “does not seek approval to conduct activities related to ‘nuclear weapons.'” It says its primary licensed activity as a manufacturer and processor of specialty nuclear fuels sums up its mission. “To the extent (ECAN) claims or believes otherwise, it is simply mistaken.”

“The (ASLB) declined to require Nuclear Fuel Services to be fundamentally truthful that the new product line for which license amendment is sought is part of the U.S. thermonuclear weapons program,” Lodge wrote in his appeal.

Oak Ridge opposed the Erwin project in early 2021, citing both job loss and safety concerns and saying its current process could handle the work. Its old line is actually still producing the HEU.

Oak Ridge’s government status and the fact it operates under the DOE subject it to stricter oversight and stricter quality assurance requirements, Oak Ridge advocates, including a retired environmental scientist who worked there, argued in 2021.

Quoted in the Oak Ridger, the retired scientist and city council member, Ellen Smith, spoke of Y-12’s high security and “highly specialized trained workforce.”

“By transferring this work to a private-sector facility in a different city, NNSA may hope to be able to pass off some of its responsibility for safeguarding its weapons-grade uranium to a third party, and perhaps also escape the level of safety-related scrutiny that its activities at Y-12 receive from the public and from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board,” Smith said in a news release from the city of Oak Ridge.

Lodge made a similar argument in his appeal, saying the ASLB “shirked its responsibility.” The main question comes to the difference between regulations at Y-12 and those at NFS.

“Should a facility that under other circumstances would be required by DOE regulations to have a process Quality Assurance program be disqualified from receiving a license to pursue a quality-deficient, inherently-dangerous radiological process that will be addressed only by the NRC’s weaker QA regulations?” Lodge wrote.

If NFS gets the license amendment, it would be eligible to actually conduct the conversion and enrichment should NNSA give it a phase two contract.

What intervention would mean

Lodge said if ECAN won its appeal, the NRC and NFS could still call for a trial to try and keep ECAN out of the process.

“We would be allowed to put on witnesses and evidence … to prove that there needs to be greater investigation and analysis that is made publicly available,” he said. “We’re asking for more information.”

Even people who may not be particularly concerned about the nuclear weapons aspect of the contract but who live in the Nolichucky River watershed — and not just in Erwin — should care about what ECAN is doing, Lodge said. He said NFS has a history of safety incidents that’s well-documented, and that citizens also should question the use of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to produce something that’s already in production at Oak Ridge.

“I think there’s something for everybody,” Lodge said. “There’s something across the spectrum, from the standpoint of fiscal responsibility, also from the standpoint of government truthfulness in disclosing industrial dangers to the local community, including long-lasting water contamination as well as the immediate prospect of an industrial aspect that could be extremely serious.”

NFS, owned by BWX Technologies, also has stood on its safety record and argued, along with the NRC, that none of the contentions passed the threshold to admit ECAN to the process.