Erwin group airs concerns, questions inspectors on safety of NFS

Sue Guinn Legg • Jul 17, 2019 at 10:37 PM

ERWIN — U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials returned to Erwin Tuesday to give a local citizens watchdog group the opportunity members sought to publicly address concerns for the safety of the Nuclear Fuel Services facility here.

Tuesday’s night’s “public outreach meeting” at Erwin Town Hall was in followup to a May 17 poster presentation and open house meeting of NRC’s most recent two-year review of safety processes at NFS.

While NRC officials said the open house format was intended to allow more members of the public more interaction in one-on-one and small-group discussions with its staff, members of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, a watchdog group that has been monitoring the agency’s inspections at NFS for nearly a decade, complained the May meeting denied them the forum to air their concerns provided to them for past safety reviews at NFS.

Joel Rivera-Ortiz, a senior fuel facility inspector for the agency, opened Tuesday’s meeting by emphasizing the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss the NRC 2017-18 safety review, which found Nuclear Fuel Services in compliance with agency regulations and without need for improvement, but to accommodate “stakeholders” who were dissatisfied with the May meeting.

Linda Modica, vice president of the watchdog group, was the first to step up to the microphone and began her comments with a 2010 study conducted by Northern Arizona University Professor Emeritus Michal Ketterer that found plutonium contamination in soil samples gathered from sites including the Erwin Linear Trail, residential property, a cemetery located near the NFS plant and in pond sediment on North Indian Creek and the Nolichucky River as far downstream as the Davy Crocket Dam.

Rivera-Ortiz responded that the presence of plutonium cited in the report “does not mean that there are significant environmental issues.”

Erwin Citizens Awareness Network President Barbara O’Neal began her comments by telling the NRC officials, “Nothing with you all is ever significant. We are concerned and we have reason to be.”

O’Neal noted that the nuclear fuel processing plant has been operating in Erwin for 62 years and its releases are cumulative.

“People around here have been bombarded for 62 years and I don’t know that you all have done your job,” she said.

Erwin resident Chris Tipton told the NRC officials that after reading hundreds of studies and Congressional reports she is sad to have concluded that her home is “a sacrificial community.”

“That is, ‘we are going to give you jobs but we are going to leave you with problems on down.’ “ she said. “Plutonium is in the air and in the water. I understand national security. It’s just a shame we did not have to have the damage we have,” she said.

Tipton also told the NRC officials, “I think there needs to be a sign, or a better sign on the Nolichucky River where you discharge that warns people that it is poison. I have seen people fishing on the other side and people walk out into that water.”

Prior to the close of the meeting, O’Neal requested future meetings on NRC safety reviews at NFS be conducted in the more formal format that allows citizens to address the inspectors publicly. “The standup cocktail party you all had without the cocktails, that doesn’t get much done,” O’Neal said of the NRC’s open house meeting in May.