ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) is seeking federal approval to amend its license for working with radioactive materials, and a panel of judges will hear arguments Monday on whether a citizens’ group will be allowed to present four “contentions” as NFS’s application moves forward.
The 1 p.m. hearing, which will involve arguments from a lawyer for the citizens’ group and lawyers for NFS, can be heard by the public through a phone number and passcode:
- Phone: 888-982-7291
- Passcode: 8332009#
If the Erwin Citizens Action Network (ECAN) is successful, it will be able to participate as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) considers the Erwin nuclear facility’s application.
ECAN President Linda Modica told News Channel 11 she hopes ECAN can be involved to provide what she called “a peer review” alongside the NRC.
She said the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) gives the public “a right to know what our government is doing, and we also have a right under NEPA to have a say.”
NFS, which told News Channel 11 Friday “we do not comment about ongoing litigation,” is seeking to expand what it’s allowed to do in the highly regulated industry. The request is related to a $57.5 million contract NFS was awarded in late February 2021 from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
That contract’s Phase I calls for NFS to “design and pilot demonstration of highly enriched uranium (HEU) conversion and purification services.”
The process NFS is working on involves “using natural or depleted uranium (DU) to convert oxide to purified HEU metal.”
According to a synopsis in the Aug. 31 Federal Register, NFS wants its license amended “to perform uranium purification and conversion services at the NFS site pursuant to a contract with the NNSA.”
Work began immediately on the contract last year. Federal officials called it a “bridge program” as the Y-12 site in Oak Ridge, which had been performing that type of work, converts to a new “electrorefining process.”
Modica said the Federal Register’s synopsis of NRC’s review process describes the level of risk NFS is taking on as it performs work that she said has previously been done only at government facilities.
“They have said that outright, that there are going to be new processes invented in order to do the work that they seek,” Modica said.
“What we’re talking about is highly enriched uranium. This is bomb material that is more highly enriched than the fuel material that they generally produce.”
The federal register synopsis 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…”
That synopsis also notes the proposed work “use new processes, technologies or control systems for which the licensee has no prior experience.”
During its upcoming technical review, the NRC will review NFS’s application in areas including “radiation safety, chemical safety, fire safety, security, environmental protection and material control/accountability.”
Terry Lodge will argue ECAN’s case Monday. He said it’s important that ECAN be allowed to weigh in, though he said the NRC has “a somewhat creditable history of attempting to regulate NFS.”
But Lodge said he and ECAN’s leaders believe the scrutiny and track record at Y-12 are stronger.
“By moving it to a private sector firm instead of running it at a federally owned facility apparently you are going to be looking at a weaker quality control structure,” he said.
Lodge said he understands the economic impact NFS has on the Erwin community.
“We all understand that people want to stay in business,” he said. “But it’s a very unusual line of work and it has lots of hazards. This is not a game and it’s not just a cash cow.”
The four contentions center around:
- The likelihood that this project that involves improvement of nuclear weapons technology “is increasingly at odds with international laws and norms” and that under NEPA, those impacts must be discussed.
- That the project’s need is “expressed in unduly narrow and time-limited terms” and that’s resulted in “inadequate consideration of the no-build alternative.” That contention also raises the question of whether the “bridging strategy” is even necessary given the progress being made on the new process at Y-12.
- That NFS’s “legacy contamination” from its operations over the past 65 years “is understated, uninvestigated and missing from” the company’s required supplemental environmental report. The contention references ongoing studies from Michael Ketterer, a Ph.D. chemist, that it says “unequivocally demonstrate the offsite presence of NFS-derived contamination of the surroundings, as well as the entire Nolichucky River downstream of NFS.”
- That NFS has a poor track record of quality assurance. It cites a “considerable history of safety violations at NFS over the past decade.”
The entire ECAN document can be reviewed here: