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Sinkhole fuels NFS safety concerns

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
The recent appearance of a sinkhole near Love Chapel Elementary school has local parents worried, but it also generated concern from members of the public who often question Nuclear Fuel Services’ safety operations.
A meeting, which was originally called to address NFS’ 25-year license renewal, was held on Thursday in the Unicoi County Courthouse.
Many individuals sought answers from members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding the NFS facility’s proximity to the sinkhole. Those individuals expressed the belief that the proximity of the sinkhole poses a threat to environmental and community safety.
NRC’s James Park began the sinkhole discussion by presenting three projection slides that illustrated approximations of three types of formations that lie beneath the surface around the NFS facility. The slides showed rome formations to be directly under the facility.
Park said the NRC does not label the sinkhole situation as needing immediate attention in regard to NFS because NFS is located more centrally to the rome formation, whereas the sinkhole is located in an area that may be made of rome formation and shady dolomite.
“The fact that you have these two sinkholes occur more between two formations could mean that there’s more of the dolomite in this location as opposed to being somewhere else,” Park said while pointing to the area where the sinkholes were located. “You’ll also note the NFS site is more toward the center of the rome formation.”
However, Park said he along with these slides could only provide a general overview of what is going on underneath NFS.
Barbara O’Neal and Linda Modica referenced a recent dye test that resulted in traces of dye found near the Linear Trail and Nolichucky River as their platform for concern about NFS’ ability to withstand a sinkhole inside the facility.
Modica said she would like the NRC to conduct their own geological survey because she believes the slides used at the meeting were sourced from NFS. She also questioned whether sinkholes were addressed in the NRC’s safety operations review of the facility.
“I don’t know that there was a lot of focus on sinkholes, but because of recent events we are going back and evaluating that,” said the NRC’s Kevin Ramsey. “We are going to follow up on sinkholes, but quite honestly my personal opinion is that the consequences from a sinkhole are not going to be any worse than the consequences from an earthquake or a flood or a fire or all the things we already looked at. We’re going to go back and take a second look just to make sure, but I don’t really think we are missing anything from what the consequences would be.”
Among many concerns the public addressed during the meeting were the National Academy of Sciences’ completion of Phase I of a proposed cancer study, NFS’ structural integrity and the cost of decommissioning the site.
Greene County resident Trudy Wallack urged the panel to reiterate that the NRC is in control of when to implement the next phase of the cancer study.
“They (the NRC) have to decide based on what they think the product is going to be, how much it is going to cost, which way they want to go and the National Academy will then proceed accordingly,” said Ramsey.
Before questions from the audience were taken, the NRC staff discussed their approval of NFS’ 25-year license renewal with emphasis on the safety evaluation report and environmental assessment.
In regard to the safety evaluation report, policy changes were addressed by Ramsey, who said that renewals could be issued for up to 40 years. Ramsey said that improved accident reports and programs allowed the length to be increased, but if concerns arise the NRC reserves the right to reduce the length of time the license will be in effect.
A couple of concerns were outlined by Ramsey that included poor compliance history and a current order for safety culture improvement.
“We informed NFS that we did have concerns and we were considering a shorter term,” Ramsey said. “Now, NFS on its own initiative reduced its request.”
Ramsey stated that NFS chose to reduce the renewal length to 25 years.
After considering pros and cons, Ramsey said the NRC considered the request reasonable. The NRC retains the right to modify or suspend the license contingent upon any future changes, he said.
Ramsey outlined the safety evaluation report by saying all 14 areas evaluated were either acceptable, adequate or sufficient. The evaluation included details regarding the organization and administration, integrated safety analysis, radiation protection, nuclear criticality safety, chemical process safety, fire safety, emergency management, environmental protection, decommissioning, management measures, material control and accounting, physical protection of material at fixed sites, physical protection of material in transit and environmental review.
The NRC determined there was a finding of no significant impact for the final environmental assessment.
Park summarized the final environmental assessment for the renewal. The NRC determined that NFS’ operations environmental impacts regarding the license renewal would be small with the exception of small to moderate impacts on land use, transportation, soils and groundwater, Park said. Also, moderate impacts were found in areas of public and occupational health from accidents, which were non-threatening and a result of the potential need for medical attention.
Environmental impacts related to decommissioning ranged from small to moderate as well. Small impacts were found in areas of air quality, geology, historic and cultural resources and public and occupational health. Moderate impacts were found in land use, scenic and visual as well as waste management.
According to the NRC’s presentation, small impacts are defined as unnoticeable and will not destabilize or alter important attributes of the resource while moderate is defined as effects that could be noticeable but would not destabilize the resource.
The NRC concluded that renewal of the license for 40 years would not significantly affect the quality of the human environment, therefore an environmental impact statement was not issued.