ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — Monday’s incident at Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) came less than three months after a spill of “special nuclear material” at its Erwin plant Nov. 10, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) inspection report released Jan. 23.

Erwin Citizens Awareness Network (ECAN), a group trying to intervene in NFS’s request to expand its license so it can work with higher-enriched uranium, informed News Channel 11 of the November incident.

“It’s another in a long, long string of accidents,” ECAN Vice President Barbara O’Neal said of Monday’s incident. She said once information from Monday’s accident becomes public, documentation will go in a thick three-ring binder holding records, mostly from the NRC, stretching back to 1974.

“They show exactly the same thing, spills, they show the lack of plant configuration, they show all these violations that were given to them by the NRC,” O’Neal said.

The Jan. 23 memo from the NRC references a failure to handle the special nuclear material (SNM) according to standard operating procedures in the facility’s Area 200. The NRC did not specify further on what the exact SNM was.

“Specifically, a designated operator failed to follow written instructions to observe the process start-up, which resulted in a missed opportunity to identify an incorrect system configuration that ultimately caused a spill of SNM and an unplanned contamination in a process area,” the memo reads.

The “Severity IV” incident, which represents the lowest severity level, is the only one noted in the NRC’s follow up to an Oct. 1-Dec. 31 2022 inspection at the plant.

While the contaminated material didn’t spread outside a “radiologically controlled area” or result in worker exposure above NRC regulatory limits, inspectors judged that it was more than a “minor” violation because it could have led to more serious consequences than it did.

“The inspectors determined that the violation could reasonably be considered a precursor to a significant event … because … the failure to follow procedure resulted in an unsafe configuration of SNM that adversely impacted nuclear or radiological safety of equipment and personnel.”

What happened Nov. 10

The NRC report shows that at least two errors led to the spill Nov. 10.

First, the report says, a day shift “operator-in-training” incorrectly installed equipment in the facility’s Area 200 while preparing the area for the processing of special nuclear material.

During the next shift, a trained operator assigned to Area 200 started up SNM processing activities. According to regular procedure, that operator “was required to observe the process start-up” for two to five minutes after initiating processing “to ensure safe process operation”

Proper observation could have led the operator to turn the process off. Instead, the system stayed on and the spill of nuclear material created “an unplanned contamination…”

After the spill, staff put the area into a “safe shutdown” and management decontaminated the area. The material didn’t escape outside a controlled area, and NFS staff handled the cleanup safely and appropriately, the NRC reported.

A Severity Level IV violation results in “no or relatively inappreciable potential safety consequences,” the report stated.

But the incident was cited as a violation because NFS doesn’t currently have an NRC-approved “corrective action program” and didn’t identify the violation.

Group opposes broader license application

O’Neal and ECAN’s president, Linda Modica, said the latest incident offers yet another example that NFS should be scrutinized closely by the NRC as it seeks approval to amend its “Part70” federal license.

That application, submitted in late 2021, relates to a sole source contract NFS got to convert natural or depleted uranium to purified highly enriched uranium. NFS’s traditional function was to downblend uranium for use in the nation’s nuclear submarine fleet.

Erwin Citizens Awareness Network vice president Barbara O’Neal. (WJHL photo)

The federal register synopsis of NFS’s application says a license amendment is required because NFS itself reports that the new services “have the potential to introduce new accident scenarios to the existing NRC-licensed activities…”

An attorney for ECAN argued in a Dec. 12 hearing that the group should be allowed to participate as the NRC considers the application. An administrative panel of judges has not yet filed an official decision on whether to allow ECAN’s participation.

Modica said while “ECAN is most concerned right now for the welfare of the workers,” in Monday’s incident, she believes the company tries to downplay negative occurrences there.

“Their response shows the further minimization of accidents by calling them process upsets,” Modica said, referring to NFS’s initial description of the event. “When five people get hurt by an accident is the NRC also going to slough it off as a non-issue?” she said.

Modica said the jury is out on that, but that ECAN “is diligent in watching and pushing the NRC to do its work of regulation, and we will find out more about what the NRC plans to do with respect to this latest accident.”

O’Neal said she believes the record at NFS should be enough to give the agency pause as it considers allowing NFS to work with higher levels of radioactive material. The contract is meant to maintain the supply of a type of highly-enriched uranium that has been produced at the government-run Oak Ridge Y-12 facility.

Y-12 is changing its processes for creating that type of material and shut down the operation in the interim. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration awarded NFS, a private company now owned by Babcock and Wilcox, in February 2021.

“If the NRC would read their own violations, they would sort of see where we’re coming from in our administrative lawsuit saying, ‘hey, I don’t believe they should be given anything (licensure-wise) higher than what they’re currently working with,” O’Neal said.