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NRC says NFS facility operated safety, some express doubts

NFS President Joel Duling, left, responds to the license performance review. Also pictured is NFS Director of Safety and Safeguards Richard Freudenberger. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)
NFS President Joel Duling, left, responds to the license performance review. Also pictured is NFS Director of Safety and Safeguards Richard Freudenberger. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were in Erwin last week to discuss Nuclear Fuel Services’ most recent performance review – an assessment which found that none of the program areas at NFS needed improvement.

But some feel that neither NFS nor the federal agency charged with its oversight is doing all that is necessary to protect the health and safety of the public.

A public meeting was held Thursday, April 20, at Erwin Town Hall for NRC staff members to cover the licensee performance review with NFS management. This review covered the two-year period from Jan.1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2016. To complete the review, the NRC assessed several NFS areas including safety operations, radiological controls, facility support and safeguards.

The NRC issued a letter to NFS detailing the results of the review on March 8.

Charlie Stancil, who served as NRC’s senior resident inspector at NFS during the assessment period, said the NRC completed approximately 40 routine inspections, which included around 3,300 hours of direct observation and evaluation, of NFS programs and processes over the two-year review period.

Several enforcement issues were documented during the review period, Stancil said.

“The NRC evaluated multiple plant issues during the period, and some resulted in the issuance of violations,” Stancil said.

Six enforcement issues were noted in the area of safety operations, two were noted in the radiological controls area, and one issue was noted in the facility support area. Stancil said each of the violations was classified as Severity Level IV violations. A Severity Level I is the highest classification a violation can be given by the NRC, and the agency has the discretion to assign civil penalties to violations.

The issues noted in the assessment included the circumvention of safety-related components, failure to maintain records of inspection, testing and maintenance of fire protection systems and components, and failure to treat mixed waste.

“Each of these violations required NFS to evaluate and implement corrective actions,” Stancil said. “NRC, in turn, the inspectors will review these corrective actions and assess the disposition of the violation and then close the violations”

None of the performance issues from the closed violations rose to the level of an area needing improvement, or ANI. As Marvin Sykes from the NRC explained, a ANI is defined as a performance trend significant enough to require additional licensee attention and NRC oversight. Sykes said ANI may be identified as a single significant or security significant issue, a significant recurring issue, or three or more issues with common themes that require substantive corrective actions to prevent recurrence.

Three issues noted the safety operations area remain open, but one may be closed during an upcoming May inspection and the other two are in the enforcement process and awaiting an NRC decision on the enforcement, Stancil said.

Still, the NRC determined that the local facility operated safely during the performance review period.

“NFS continues to conduct licensed activities safely and securely, protecting public health and the environment,” Stancil said as he provided the results of the review. “No specific performance weaknesses or trends or areas needing improvement were identified. In fact, the number of areas needing improvement have been zero for the last two assessment periods, and that’s a four-year interim.”

However, Stancil said the absence of ANI does not mean that performance in the areas assessed need no further enhancement.

“Early detection with comprehensive corrective actions to address these performance issues are key to sustaining safe and secure operations and performance as we move forward,” he said.

NFS President Joel Duling said his company is “dedicated to self-identification of issues and prompt reporting of events to the NRC if they occur.”

“During the previous licensee performance review in 2015, we talked about how we plan to keep learning from and building on our past improvements,” Duling said. “I believe we’ve delivered on that plan, and performance in 2015 and 2016 showed a decrease in frequency, as well as a reduction in radiological risk to our employees, and continued strong industrial safety performance.”

In June, NFS will hit nearly 5 million hours without a lost-time accident, Duling said, adding this would be an all-time record for the company.

“During the review period, NFS not only maintained a safe and secure work environment but also implemented programs and processes that will drive continued improvement into the future,” Duling said. “As you know, that’s one of our mottos – ‘Continuous improvement, continuous journey.’ We are never satisfied with where we’re at. We’re always looking to get better.” 

Improvement efforts at NFS include continued implementation of the company’s safety culture, focusing on operator training, enhancements to procedures to improve consistency and implementation, and realignment of NFS’ waste management programs to improve control and oversight, Duling said.

“These efforts have resulted in safe, secure, reliable operations at NFS and support our continued improvement into the future,” he said.

NFS Director of Operations Mike McKinnon said 2016 was NFS’ best year in its 60-year history from an industrial safety perspective, adding the company has not had a lost-time injury since 2013.

“This is reflective of the engagement of our employees in ensuring focus of safety during all of their work activities,” McKinnon said.

Richard Freudenberger, NFS director of safety and safeguards, said radiological exposure to NFS employees continues to be low and that doses are well below regulatory limits while continuing to decrease each year. He said all liquid and gaseous effluence from the facility are monitored, adding NRC and state standards continue to be met. Freudenberger also said additional infrastructure improvements to enhance safety at the facility are in progress this year, and the company’s five-year plan for facilities has been updated to support continued site improvement.

“With our investments in the community and our facility, NFS is positioned well for sustained safe operations into the future,” Duling said, “but we’re on a journey, as I opened with, and we will always strive for continuous improvement as we safely provide high-quality nuclear fuel for our nation. NFS is truly good people doing good work, and they take that to heart.”

NRC licensee performance reviews occur biennially, and a new assessment period for NFS began on Jan. 1 and will conclude Dec. 31, 2018.

• • •

Following the business portion of Thursday’s meeting, NRC staff remained on hand to field questions from the public in attendance. One observer who spoke voiced concerns over prior events and the safety culture at NFS, another voiced concerns about the impact environmental factors and natural disasters could have on the facility, and another attendee questioned effluence from the Erwin plant.

But all of those who spoke during the question and answer portion of Thursday’s meeting questioned the NRC’s decision to end the study it was in the process of conducting to assess the cancer risk around several NRC-licensed facilities.

The NRC announced in October 2012 that it would be sponsoring a pilot cancer risk study to be completed by the National Academy of Sciences at seven NRC-licensed facility to determine the feasibility of extending the study to include additional reactor and fuel cycle sites across the country. NFS was one of the seven facilities to be included in the pilot study.

The pilot study marked the first step in updating a nearly 30-year-old study completed by the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute that examined cancer risks for populations in counties with nuclear facilities. This study, completed in 1990, found no increased risk of death from cancer for people living near nuclear facilities and has served as the NRC’s primary source of information when discussing with the public cancer mortality risks in areas containing nuclear power facilities.

In September 2015, the NRC announced it was ceasing work on the NAS pilot study. According to a press release issued at that time, the NRC determined that continuing the work was impractical, given the amount of time and resources needed coupled with the NRC’s budgetary constraints.

“We’re balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use Congressionally-provided funds as wisely as possible,” Brian Sheron, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, stated in 2015. “The NAS estimates it would be at least the end of the decade before they would possibly have answers for us, and the costs of completing the study were prohibitively high.”

Meeting attendee Barbara O’Neal said she was disappointed by the NRC’s decision to end the study. Kevin Ramsey with the NRC said the initial estimates for the study was that it would take more than four years and more than $8 million to complete. Alternate proposals were developed to lower the cost and timeframe, Ramsey said.

“But I think the thing that really kind of made the commission decide not to proceed was when they asked the medical professionals if they thought that if we spent this time and energy if we were going to get useful results,” Ramsey said. “The answer was basically ‘No’.”

Jonesborough resident Linda Modica called the decision a “breach of trust.”

“That was the second sucker punch you gave us after granting this company a 25-year extension to their license now that’s 60-years-old, truly decrepit, and then you drop the cancer study,” Modica said, referencing the NRC’s 2012 decision to renew NFS’ operating license for another 25 years. “So I can’t say I’ve got a whole lot of trust or that you have earned any trust.”

Erwin’s Buzz Davies said he has personally documented a group of more than 800 people in Unicoi County and into North Carolina in which the cancer density was 50 percent.

“It doesn’t take an $8 million study for you to tell that release of (uranium hexafluoride) can cause serious injury to the people in the area,” Davies said.

Johnson City resident Karen Robbins said she was attending her first public meeting held by the NRC to discuss NFS’ performance, but she felt compelled to attend to share her thoughts on the decision to cease the cancer risk study.

“Eight-million dollars for 60 years of existence, and that hasn’t been done before?” Robbins said. “I think you owe it to the people of Erwin, the people of Unicoi County and everybody that lives along this Nolichucky River.”