ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — A regional activist group will hold a “teach-in” before Thursday’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) performance review of Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS).
NFS recently won the second, half-billion dollar phase of a two-part contract to initiate a new nuclear process at its Erwin plant, which requires an amendment to its NRC license.
Members of the Appalachian Peace Education Center (APEC) are gathering at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at The Magnolia Room, 102 S. Main Ave., where a scientist who has tested soil, air and water around NFS for the past decade will speak.
After Michael Ketterer, a professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, presents new results of air pollution testing around Erwin, the group will greet people who have come to attend the review starting at about 5:30 in front of the Unicoi County Courthouse at 100 N. Main Ave.
An APEC news release says Ketterer “will also explain how his sampling methods show clearly that the beautiful Nolichucky River has been polluted by nuclear waste all the way to Douglas Lake.”
The review includes opportunities for the public to ask questions about the performance review, which will last from 6:30-8 p.m.
The NRC published a March 3 letter to NFS’s president about its review of NRC-licensed activities for all of 2021 and 2022. It noted the facility had three Severity Level IV “Safety Operations” violations during that time and two Severity Level IV “Safeguards” violations.
Level IV is the lowest violation level, and the letter said the NRC “determined that NFS continued to conduct activities safely and securely and in a manner that protects public health and the environment.”
Thursday’s review comes five weeks after NFS was approved for a $428 million National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) contract to purify and convert uranium oxide to a metal form.
It is the second of a two-phase contract that came about after the government announced it would phase out an older process at a government-run facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.’s Y-12 National Security Complex.
Because the new contract involves a level of work NFS hasn’t performed before, it has required the company to seek a license amendment from the NRC. A citizens group, Erwin Citizens Action Network (ECAN), filed to intervene in the request and opposes the license amendment.
That opposition has been unsuccessful so far, and ECAN’s efforts are currently in their last stage of appeal. Even before that process played out, the second-phase NNSA contract was approved.
ECAN’s initial motion to intervene cited concerns with what it said was NFS’s poor 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 Department of Energy-regulated, publicly run Y-12.
ECAN said the highly enriched uranium would add capacity to the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpiles and should be more closely scrutinized due to nuclear proliferation protocols. They said consideration should be given to not building the line at all, particularly since the old Y-12 line continues to operate.
“Our government has spent $500 million, risked the health and safety of people and communities along the Nolichucky River just to make it more convenient to threaten the rest of the world with nuclear annihilation,” APEC’s Buckey Boone said in the news release.
In April, NFS spokeswoman Laura Bailey emailed News Channel 11 the following response to ECAN’s contentions about NFS’s safety record, saying the company has a strong safety record:
“We place the highest value on the protection of our neighbors, the environment and our employees.”
Y-12 is working on new processes that could lead to a more modern method of purifying and converting uranium oxide to metal. An NNSA release says that conversion will involve both highly enriched uranium (HEU) and very highly enriched uranium (VHEU). The DOE was seeking a bridge supplier when it first contracted with NFS in 2021.
The first contract for $57.5 million required NFS to design a process line “and demonstrate that it could convert uranium oxide to purified uranium metal while meeting the NNSA’s precise specifications…” according to an NFS news release.