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Citizens question safety of Erwin plant

Members of the community were given the opportunity to share their concerns over the safety of Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) with the facility’s regulatory body during a public meeting at Erwin Town Hall on April 23.
Following a presentation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the organization tasked with overseeing operations at NFS, regarding the licensee performance review (LPR) of the Erwin facility, members of the public were given the chance to question NRC officials about the safety of NFS.
As has been previously reported, the results of the LPR led the NRC to lower the number of NRC resident inspectors from two to one. During last month’s meeting Jim Hickey, with the NRC, said one resident inspector is the “normal inspection oversight” of facilities similar to NFS. Two resident inspectors had worked at the Erwin facility since 2004 until earlier this year.
Barbara O’Neal, representing the Erwin Citizen’s Awareness Network, was the first to address the NRC.
O’Neal questioned the NRC representatives regarding why the number of inspectors at NFS was lowered “knowing full well that major safety issues occurred during 2013-2014.”
“Let me give you some examples,” O’Neal continued. “June 17, 2014, event 50208, license supervisor improperly operating two spring return valves, identified as items relied on for safety. Valves were wedged open by a box end wrench.”
Hickey said the individual who wedged open the valves was a plant operator. The action was discovered by a supervisor.
“That sounds to me like there are still safety issues, safety problems,” O’Neal said. “That was willful.”
Hickey said the NRC’s law enforcement branch conducted an investigation into the June 2014 incident and determined that the individual who opened the valves “made a decision that he wanted to prop those valves open.”
“That’s where the willful component comes in,” Hickey continued.
“But we still don’t know why he did it,” O’Neal responded. “The safety consequence of that was a chemical spill of pure ammonium hydroxide.”
Hickey said the investigation examined the significance of the event, from both a nuclear criticality perspective and a chemical safety perspective.
“Even with these valves propped open, there were other controls in place …” Hickey added. “Very rarely do systems at the facility rely on a single safety-related control. … This meant it would have been a minor significance. We raised the significance one level because of the willfulness and deliberate misconduct.”
O’Neal asked if the individual was motivated to open the valves by a “production over safety” mentality.
Hickey said operators are encouraged to ask for help to open the valves from either a supervisor or another operator.
“This individual made the conscious decision that they weren’t going to do that,” Hickey added. “They decided it was easier for them to wedge the valve open. They sat down, watching the fill activity, they didn’t leave the area. … This was still unacceptable behavior and resulted in the cited violation.”
Among the other events O’Neal cited was the April 4 event when an unplanned chemical reaction took place in a 2-liter bottle at the facility.
“Now we have a special inspection due to the breach of a 2-liter bottle of waste containing nitric acid and uranium,” she said. “… It was more like an explosion. … The event report had two categories, one was unplanned contamination and the second was fire and explosion. This event report was held for 10 days. Why was it held for 10 days before being released on April 13. This is excessive even for NFS, they always get five or six days.”
Hickey said because of the work done at NFS, the NRC reviews the information shared by the facility with the NRC to make sure it does not contain classified or sensitive information.
Hickey said the bottle was stored in a locked, access-control area.
“Are there more bottles like that?” O’Neal asked.
“Yes, there are more bottles,” Hickey said. “This is an activity that they do routinely and have done routinely for years. (The unplanned reaction on April 4) was the first time this reaction took place. The reaction appears to be well-understood. There is a special inspection underway now. … In the next six weeks or so the inspection report should be released.”
O’Neal then questioned the NRC about past environmental releases at NFS.
“You never like to talk about the past,” she said. “The people in this community are the past. We care about the past.”
O’Neal said she found NFS effluent reports on the NRC website that were released late last year. She condensed several binders of information into an 8-page report she shared with local media. Her summarized report lists more than 40 incidents when NFS reportedly exceeded its release limits.
“In May 1962, the year I graduated high school, 15 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium, UF6, was released on this community in five minutes,” she read. “It was an overheated cylinder rupture. On March 20, 1964, one kilogram of UF6 was released in two hours due to an overpressure burst tube. …”
O’Neal also discussed a letter from the NRC to Senator Jim Sasser regarding residents’ concerns about their water supply. She also cited incidents from the early 1960s until the late 1990s from the effluent reports, including seven weeks during 1981 when stacks 287 and 278 exceeded reporting levels.
“NRC always tells us (NFS) never exceeds their limits, but they do,” O’Neal said. “Over and over and over and they have for years. …”
Buzz Davies also questioned the NRC about environmental releases by NFS.
“With regard to the effluents, I want to explain something,” Kevin Ramsey with the NRC said. “The requirement we are requiring licensees to demonstrate is that the public dose limit hasn’t been exceeded. … The numbers are based on very conservative assumptions. Such as, if the air at this concentration was the only air that a member of the public breathes for the whole year … They are very conservative assumptions. …”
During her time addressing the NRC, Linda Modica said she believed there is no safe exposure limit.
“The only reasonable number is zero,” she said.
Hickey said the limits set by the NRC are “as low as reasonably achievable.”