October 23, 1999
Production at plant may be next target
By Bill Bartleman
The next target for a congressional hearing may be the safety of the production side of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assumed responsibility for regulating production facilities in March 1997, it has cited the United States Enrichment Corp. with 104 violations.
First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield wants to make sure those violations aren't endangering the health and safety of the workers and community. He also wants to make sure that the NRC is giving proper oversight of USEC, the private corporation formed in 1992 to run the production facilities where uranium is enriched for use as nuclear fuel.
USEC portions of the plant are controlled separately from U.S. Department of Energy areas where radioactive waste has been stored or buried from the first 40 years of production. DOE's oversight of the management of waste and cleanup has come under scrutiny in recent months after a lawsuit was filed questioning past practices at the plant.
"Up until now, the total focus has been on DOE and its waste ... and the impact on workers who fall within the DOE perspective," Whitfield said in an interview Friday. "We have not looked at the NRC since they took over on the production side. To do a complete circle of the operations out there, we need to look at the NRC, too."
Whitfield said he met Friday with leaders of the House Commerce Committee, and one of the topics was the possibility of another hearing.
If a hearing is held, it won't be until early next year, Whitfield said. It would be the second hearing by the Commerce Committee. Last month, one of its subcommittees looked into DOE operations and allegations of widespread contamination and also allegations that information about contamination was withheld from workers.
The Senate Energy Committee held a hearing in late August, and the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations will hold a hearing in Washington on Tuesday.
Ken O'Brien, the NRC's senior resident inspector in Paducah, said he would welcome a congressional inquiry into its oversight at the Paducah plant. "We are proud of what we do," he said.
O'Brien said 104 violations since March 1997 are not an alarming number for the Paducah plant. "It is not unexpected when a new licensee comes under the NRC from a previous system," he said. Until 1997, the plant was under the jurisdiction of DOE regulations.
O'Brien said the important issue is that violations are corrected and not repeated, and that the number of violations diminishes as USEC becomes accustomed to NRC scrutiny.
He said that since January, there have been five violations. In its most recent report to Congress, NRC said USEC was doing an good job of meeting regulations and operating the plant in a safe manner.
While all violations are considered serious, most of the 104 have been classified as Level 4, the NRC's lowest. Only once has USEC been fined for a Level 3 violation, and that was in December 1997.
The $55,000 fine was for lax security involving classified documents and a videotape. The NRC said it found five cases in which classified material was outside a restricted area or where it could be accessible to individuals who didn't have security clearance.
Other violations include not reporting certain incidents to the NRC
in a timely manner, not correcting violations in a timely manner, finding
an operator asleep on the job, the failure of some workers to wear radiation
monitors and the failure of an alarm that warns plant personnel in the event
uranium reaches critical mass.