Secrecy poses threat to public safety

In a follow up on a incident we mentioned here back in May, Congress has directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review a policy that withholds information about nuclear safety accidents from public view.

A spill of a highly enriched uranium solution at Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., an East Tennessee facility that makes fuel for nuclear submarines and commercial reactors, was not disclosed to the public or local emergency and public health officials because of an NRC policy that makes details about operations at the facility "official use only," effectively declaring them "top secret" without officially classifying them.

The policy was put in place in August of 2004 at the direction of the DOE Office of Naval Reactors, citing national security concerns. The accident only came to light when it was disclosed earlier this year as part of a required NRC annual report to Congress.

According to this latest Knoxville News Sentinel report, the incident also resulted in a change to the company's NRC license, requiring them to beef up their safety and security measures, which was also not publicly disclosed. Any NRC license change is subject to a public hearing, but no hearing was ever requested because the changes were not made public.

The article also mentions that a recent letter from the NRC to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce regarding inspections at the facility revealed that it was "only a matter of luck" that the incident wasn't more serious. This letter was also not publicly disclosed.

Don Lewis, the mayor of Erwin and a former employee at the facility which is the town's largest employer, said he "heard rumors" about the incident but apparently never inquired or did anything about it. According to the article, he said he wasn't concerned about the incident or the fact that it wasn't reported to local officials and that he had no complaints about the way it was handled.

Read the article for some other interesting quotes.

It was also revealed that the DOE Office of Naval Reactor "official use only" policy directive was never disclosed to Congress or the public, so the fact that the information was being kept secret was itself kept secret.

According to the article, the NRC is now reviewing the "official use only" policy for NFS and other licensees.