More revelations about Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc.
Now that the cloak of secrecy has been removed, more information is coming out about problems at the Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. facility in Erwin, Tennessee.
As we discussed here previously, all of the facility's incident reporting to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been withheld from public view on order of the Department of Energy. The reasoning was that operations there, which involve manufacture of fuel for nuclear submarines and commercial nuclear reactors, involve sensitive information related to national security.
Only when the NRC issued a required annual report to Congress was it revealed that a potentially deadly spill of highly enriched uranium had occurred at the facility, and that it was "only a matter of luck" that the incident wasn't more serious. In addition, a change to NFS's license related to safety violations at the facility would have prompted a public hearing had the NRC actions been made public, but no notifications were made public under the DOE policy. Further inquiry resulted in Congress directing the NRC to review the "official use only" classification policy.
After reviewing the policy, NRC recently released several documents that reveal numerous problems at the facility, going back long before the highly enriched uranium spill that occurred in March of 2006. The NRC also published the previously classified "confirmatory order" regarding the uranium spill, opening the door for a full public hearing.
In a License Performance Review issued in December of 2006 (document ID ML071930522), the NRC advised NFS:
All of the areas needing improvement are repetitive of areas identified in the last LPR. Two of these resurfaced primarily from the Blended Low Enriched Uranium Preparation Facility (BPF) event of March 6, 2006. These areas are verification and implementation of equipment and controls identified in nuclear criticality safety analyses, and utilization of the problem identification and corrective action program. The other areas needing improvement are control of strategic special nuclear material, and engineering design, verification, and configuration control.
We have met several times in the past to discuss your progress in improving these areas, and we believe that continued improvements are warranted. Given the number, significance, and repetitiveness of these issues, the confidence normally provided through a robust safety program is not evident, indicating that actions are still necessary to provide additional assurance that facility operations will be conducted safely. These issues are also indicative that further action to improve your safety culture is warranted.
As a result of our review of your performance, the NRC will continue heightened oversight of your licensed operations through inspections beyond those specified by the NRC's core inspection program. Also, the NRC may conduct the next LPR before the end of the normal 12- month period. By this time, NRC plans to have formed an oversight review panel for safety culture improvements at your facility that will play a key role in determining the appropriate LPR frequency.
Regarding the "official use only" classification of NFS reports to the NRC, the NRC held a security hearing to follow up on safety and security measures being implemented at NFS. Here is an excerpt from the hearing regarding the "official use only" policy:
COMMISSIONER MERRIFIELD:You mentioned earlier that the list of actions that you've taken - the enhanced oversight, the management meetings, escalated enforcement and whatnot, are information that we have not revealed publicly because of an agreement that we have with the Navy under the auspices of DOE.
I don't understand that. Why is that the case? What about this is Official Use Only that we're taking these - I get it that the processes obviously are things that we need to ensure aren't disclosed. I don't think it's a national secret that NFS provides fuel services to the Navy. So what justifies the use of Official Use Only regarding our process? I hope someone can explain it to me because as a Commissioner I think that goes against the openness policies that we have in our strategic plan.
The Knoxville News Sentinel has background on these latest developments and more info on other safety and security problems at the facility.