By DUNCAN MANSFIELD Associated Press Writer
Â© 2007 The Associated Press ERWIN, Tenn. â€” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. David Davis said they support openness at a nuclear fuel processing plant where a national secrecy policy prevented the public from learning about a potentially lethal uranium spill in 2006.
“What we are doing is balancing the national security interest with the community’s right to know interest. There is a lot to be said on either side,” Alexander said after touring the Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. plant with Davis, the hometown congressman.
“My conclusion is that it would have been better if the rules permitted the management of this company to inform the community at the time of the spill what had happened and whether it was dangerous or not,” Alexander said.
The spill of just over 9 gallons of highly enriched uranium solution on March 6, 2006, was not disclosed to the public until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited the incident among three significant events in its annual report to Congress in April.
The NRC has since revealed that nearly 12,000 documents about privately held NFS and a BWX Technologies Inc. plant in Lynchburg, Va., were pulled from its public archives because of concerns by the Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Reactors that the documents contained sensitive information. Both facilities make fuel for the Navy’s nuclear fleet.
Pressed by some members of Congress, the NRC is now weighing whether to reverse the secrecy policy, saying it may have gone too far.
Meanwhile, an independent board is reviewing citizen petitions for a hearing on the NRC’s decision not to fine NFS for the spill and several other less-severe violations since 2004, including mishandling nuclear materials and lax security.
Alexander and Davis, both Republicans, toured the plant for a little over an hour. They were shown the area where the spill occurred and were briefed by NFS officials and resident NRC inspectors.
“I am convinced that this is a safe place,” Alexander said.
Davis agreed, saying the 715-employee facility _ Unicoi County’s largest employer _ is a solid corporate citizen with a good safety record.
“I don’t think my mother-in-law would live within a half mile of this plant if she was worried,” Davis added.
News media was allowed through the front gate, past serpentine concrete barriers and wire fences for a news conference outside the administration building. Officials said it was the first time any reporters had been allowed in the plant in 15 years.
Both Davis and Alexander focused on the need for disclosure of mishaps.
“I have talked to the management here today and they are very supportive and would actually welcome a change in the federal rules to allow an incident to be reported to the community even in a quicker manner than it has been in the past,” Davis said.
“We all want open and accountable government,” he said, “(and) safety measures that are open to the people.”
NFS spokesman Tony Treadway said the company was “prohibited” by the NRC rules from disclosing the spill. But he said that “had there been an actual emergency there would have been no hesitance” by the company to tell local and state emergency officials. The spill did not leave the plant and no workers were injured.
The company, which also has federal contracts to convert highly enriched uranium from the nuclear weapons stockpile into low-enriched fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, modified the area where the spill occurred and has adopted an aggressive safety program _ the NRC’s alternative to a heavy fine, Treadway said.
Alexander seemed convinced the approach will bring improvements.
“The feeling of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the management was that the penalty for the mistake _ which the company acknowledges _ was a procedure that they went through to get safer,” Alexander said. “So the company recognizes it made a mistake, and they are working to improve that.”