[ RadSafe ] Report reveals '06 nuke spill

Susan Gawarecki loc at icx.net
Wed May 9 15:27:05 CDT 2007

I am concerned that the public's right to know about 
hazardous/radioactive problems in their community is being eliminated, 
rationalized by secrecy/security needs.  Emergency response agencies, 
which are often staffed by volunteers in this part of the country, are 
especially at risk if they don't have information on operational aspects 
of facilities where they may be asked to respond to a fire or the 
effects of a natural disaster.

--Susan Gawarecki

Report reveals '06 nuke spill -  9 gallons of enriched uranium solution 
leaked at ET plant, NRC says
By DUNCAN MANSFIELD, Associated Press

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed in a new report to Congress 
that a nuclear chain-reaction accident nearly occurred 14 months ago at 
a nuclear fuels processing plant in Tennessee. About 35 liters, or just 
over 9 gallons, of highly enriched uranium solution spilled March 6, 
2006, at the Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. facility in Erwin, about 15 
miles south of Johnson City, the NRC said in a report published Friday 
in the Federal Register.  The solution leaked into a protected glovebox, 
then flowed onto the floor and into an old elevator pit at the plant, 
which has been making nuclear fuel for Navy submarines and commercial 
reactors since 1957.

"Criticality," or a sustained nuclear chain reaction that releases 
radiation, was possible as the uranium pooled in both the box and the 
elevator pit, the NRC said.  "If a criticality accident had occurred in 
the filtered glovebox or the elevator pit, it is likely that at least 
one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute 
health effects or death," the NRC report said. Nobody got hurt. There 
was no danger to the general public," NRC spokesman David McIntyre said 
Tuesday. "(But) they were lucky, and we don't like them to be lucky, we 
like them to be careful."

The incident might never have been disclosed publicly if not for laws 
requiring the NRC to annually report "abnormal occurrences" of its 
license-holders to Congress. By definition, abnormal occurrences are 
considered "significant from the standpoint of public health and 
safety," NRC Chairman Dale Klein wrote in the 35-page report, which 
covered fiscal 2006 and was addressed to Vice President Dick Cheney.

The incident at Nuclear Fuel Services was one of three mentioned in the 
report. "The commission decided a few years ago in the wake of 9/11 that 
operational details at this facility would be treated as sensitive, 
official use-only information," McIntyre said. "So we don't publicly 
discuss the operational details of NFS."

The Department of Energy is far more open about incidents involving 
similar materials at the high-security Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak 
Ridge, but spokesman Steve Wyatt refused to draw comparisons Tuesday.

Nuclear Fuel Services said in a statement that the company spent months 
on reviews, safety assessments and procedural changes stemming from the 
spill. The glovebox was removed, pipes were replaced and the elevator 
pit was filled with concrete, the NRC said.  "The company took immediate 
action to shut down manufacturing operations and commence a complete 
review of all process equipment, procedures and physical structures 
within the facility," company spokesman Tony Treadway said.  "The 
thorough review resulted in a redesign of some process lines and 
additional engineered controls to enhance safety and process 
efficiencies," he said. The operation has been trouble-free since it 
restarted in October, Treadway said.

The NRC did report the spill to the International Atomic Energy Agency a 
couple of months after it occurred without identifying the facility 
where it happened, McIntyre said. That was "just to let regulators and 
licensees around the world know about the potential safety aspects of 
this spill," he said. The NRC had no plans to tell the public unless 
there was a possibility of a radiation release or someone was injured, 
McIntyre said.

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