The headlines this summer about Erwin, TN's Nuclear Fuel Services plant were focused on how the company had used national security concerns to halt even information the public should have known - such as a small radioactive spill. This week, Senator Lamar Alexander and Rep. David Davis toured to plant and said all was well. No mention from them in press reports that the plant may be sold in the near future.
Earlier this summer, stories followed the facts that security concerns allowed company officials to designate all documents as secret, an action going back for years:
"[NRC] Agency commissioners, apparently struck by the significance of the event, took a special vote to skirt the "Official Use Only" rule so that Nuclear Fuel Services would be identified in the report as the site of the uranium leak.
Some 35 liters, or just over 9 gallons, of highly enriched uranium solution leaked from a transfer line into a protected glovebox and spilled onto the floor. The leak was discovered when a supervisor saw a yellow liquid "running into a hallway" from under a door, according to one document.
The commission said there were two areas, the glovebox and an old elevator shaft, where the solution potentially could have collected in such a way to cause an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
"It is likely that at least one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute health effects or death," the agency wrote.
"We don't want any security information out there that's going to help a terrorist," agency Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said in a newly released transcript from a closed commission meeting May 30. But "that's entirely separate" from dealing with an event that could have killed a worker at the plant.
"Nuclear Fuel Services Executive Vice President Timothy Lindstrom, a Navy veteran who joined the company in September, said the company had already made "significant progress."
"I think it is important that the public recognize that we do have a very robust safety program at NFS. We live in this community and take our stewardship very seriously," he said.
"I think if we were to have an event like this again, we would push to make it public," he added. "Clearly it would have been better to have this discussion 18 months ago than it is to have it now."
Meanwhile, NFS told its 700 employees this past week it will be "exploring the possibility of a sale" over the next 12 months - not because of the commission's disclosure, but because of the company's increasing value to a booming nuclear power industry."
I have to wonder if safety records and public notification must be on the public record BEFORE a sale could occur. Meanwhile ....
Late this past week Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. David Davis toured the facility, which is Unicoi County's largest employer. They said they think the public needs to be better informed on accidents at the plant and Davis praised security measures at the facility as being as good as those in Iraq:
"Both lawmakers said they believe rules can be relaxed that prohibited letting the public know about a spill of radioactive liquid at NFS last year that did not endanger public safety, and that they will support such a change to loosen the information restrictions. "
"Rep. Davis, who grew up in Unicoi County near where the NFS facility is located, told the media that his mother-in-law has lived for years within a half -mile of the facility, and still does.
He said, “I don’t think my mother-in-law would live within half a mile if she was worried” about the plant’s safety.
Davis said he also believes the plant, which employs 715 people and has its own large plant security force, is safe from terrorists.
The congressman noted that he recently returned from Iraq, where he saw several military bases. He said he believes NFS’s perimeter and internal security is as good as, or better than, the security at U.S. military facilities in Iraq."
Rep. Davis was making several public appearances this week to talk about (or more accurately listen to others) on the topic of energy needs and costs for businesses in East TN. One stop was made with N.C. Congressman Health Shuler.
Democrat Shuler said he was happy that Republican Davis was willing to "cross party lines to talk about what was right for America."
Another visit was a conference in Morristown , where he was joined by Rep. Zach Wamp and others from the University of Tennessee to hear ideas on alternative fuels, like 'grassohol', which though perhaps full of potentials, is likewise problematic for a wide range of reasons:
"Currently, the market for fuel made from switchgrass is limited, because so few vehicles can burn it. Not enough switchgrass is being grown currently, and transportation of the harvested grass to a refinery is also an issue that will have to be addressed, though plans are in place, [agricultural economist and is director of external operations for bioenergy programs at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, Dr. Kelly] Tiller said.
Plans call for $8 million in incentives for farmers to grow switchgrass for the pilot refinery, over a five-year period. As a practical matter, most of those farms will need to be within a 50-mile radius of the refinery, [chairman of biofuels farmer education programs with UT Extension, Dr. Clark] Garland said.
About 92 acres of switchgrass have been grown with Department of Energy funding on five farms in Benton and Henry counties, both of which are in West Tennessee. One acre, on average, can produce enough switchgrass to convert to 500 gallons of “Grassohol,” Garland said."