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NRC reveals nuclear spill
Commission tells Congress
of 2006 incident in Tennessee

By Duncan Mansfield
Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE — 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.

On the Net

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: www.nrc.gov

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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