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Article cites NFS spill in report criticizing government secrecy

NET News Service • Jul 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

ERWIN - A spokesman for Nuclear Fuel Services said a story that appeared in the New York Times Friday criticizing secrecy by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and reporting information from a 2006 spill at NFS contained no new information and several inaccuracies.

Tony Treadway, spokesman for the facility that makes fuel for the Navy at its Erwin facility, said Friday that he spent 20 minutes on the phone with Matthew Wald of the New York Times interviewing for the article.

"There is no new news there," Treadway said of Friday's Times story. "I spend 20 minutes talking to (Wald), and it's clear he had his opinions set. It just goes to show you that the New York Times can get it wrong too."

Wald's story says NFS makes "uranium fuel for nuclear reactors and had a spill so bad it kept the plant closed for seven months last year and became one of only three events in all of 2006 serious enough" for the NRC to include in an annual report to Congress.

"There were several inaccuracies within the article - two within the first sentence," Treadway said. "The article states that NFS ‘makes uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. That statement is incorrect. NFS produces a low-enriched material that is later processed by other suppliers to produce actual uranium fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors. In the same sentence, Wald states that the ‘plant was closed for seven months.' This is also inaccurate."

Treadway said NFS self-identified the spill when it occurred in March 2006 and immediately and voluntarily opted to shut down the process. However, the numerous other process operations within the plant were never "closed" due to the spill and remained active in the production of uranium material for other customers. No employee was injured due to the spill, and no member of the public or the environment was negatively impacted by the spill, Treadway said.

"NFS acted promptly and appropriately in addressing the spill, immediately notifying on-site and off-site officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the matter," Treadway said. "The company relied on its own safety and engineering experts as well as numerous nuclear experts in making enhancements to the process. After three operational readiness reviews by different NRC teams, the government regulator agreed that the process operations were safe and ready to begin in October 2006. Since that time, the process has set new safety and productivity records."

Wald reported that, after an investigation, "the commission changed the terms of the factory's license and said the public had 20 days to request a hearing on the changes. But no member of the public ever did. In fact, no member of the public could find out about the changes. The document describing them, including the notice of hearing rights for anyone who felt adversely affected, was stamped ‘official use only,' meaning that it was not publicly accessible."

Wald wrote that "‘official use only' is a category below ‘secret.' Documents in that category are not technically classified but are kept from the public."

He also reported that the agency "would not even have told Congress which factory was involved were it not for the efforts of Gregory B. Jaczko, one of the five commissioners. Jaczko identified NFS in a memorandum "that became part of the public record. His memo said other public documents would allow an informed person to deduce that the factory belonged to Nuclear Fuel Services."

Wald's article states that "such secrecy by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now coming under attack by influential members of Congress." These lawmakers argue that the "agency is withholding numerous documents about nuclear facilities in the name of national security, but that many withheld documents are not sensitive. The lawmakers say the agency must rebalance its penchant for secrecy with the public's right to participate in the licensing process and its right to know about potential hazards."

Wald said "additional details of the 2006 event are coming to light now because of a letter sent Tuesday to the nuclear agency by the House Energy and Commerce Committee."

The article quotes Jaczko as saying, "‘Ultimately, we regulate on behalf of the public, and it's important for them to have a role.' He said he thought other information about Nuclear Fuel Services that should be public had been marked ‘official use only.'"

The article says "With a resurgence of nuclear plant construction expected after a 30-year hiatus, agency officials say frequently that they are trying to strike a balance between winning public confidence by regulating openly and protecting sensitive information. A commission spokesman, Scott Burnell, said the ‘official use only' designation was under review."

"It is important to note the article's focus was on how some members of Congress have questioned the NRC's decision to withhold some information related to nuclear facilities, including NFS, from the public," Treadway said Friday.

"The decision by the NRC was sparked after a request by an office within the U.S. Department of Energy to withhold certain information related to highly enriched uranium process operations," he said. "The intent was to limit information that could be used by terrorists. HEU is considered weapons-grade material. The process involved at NFS converts HEU into a low-enriched uranium material. The decision also prohibits NFS from sharing information declared ‘official use only' with the public. Thus, NFS would have violated regulations had it released information related to the spill."

The New York Times article states that, "as laid out by the commission's report to Congress and other sources, the event at the Nuclear Fuel Service factory was discovered when a supervisor saw a yellow liquid dribbling under a door and into a hallway. Workers had previously described a yellow liquid in a ‘glove box,' a sealed container with gloves built into the sides to allow a technician to manipulate objects inside, but managers had decided it was ordinary uranium."

Wald wrote that, "in fact, it was highly enriched uranium that had been declared surplus from the weapons inventory of the Energy Department and sent to the plant to be diluted to a strength appropriate for a civilian reactor."

"Generally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does describe nuclear incidents and changes in licenses. But in 2004, according to the committee's letter, the Office of Naval Reactors, part of the Energy Department, reached an agreement with the commission that any correspondence with Nuclear Fuel Services would be marked ‘official use only.'"

Treadway said the article noted that a change by the NRC to the terms of the factory's license was declared "official use only" and thus not shared with the public.

"While significant changes to a process operation can require an opportunity for members of the public to request a hearing, the only change made by the NRC to the license in this instance was an order by the NRC affirming NFS' commitment to enhancing its own safety culture among employees at the Erwin plant and the NRC's commitment to overseeing that effort," Treadway said.

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