November 13, 1999
NCR prepared to assume DOE role
By Joe Walker
The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the agency is prepared to replace the U.S. Department of Energy as regulator of historically contaminated areas of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant if Congress authorizes it.
"We have testified before Congress, and we feel we can do external regulation of DOE areas in a cost-efficient and reasonable manner," NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield said. "We can't do that until Congress changes the law, but we're certainly willing and able to do it."
Merrifield gave his views in an interview after touring the plant Friday with U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning. The commissioner stopped here on a visit to several states to tour NRC-regulated plants.
Merrifield said NRC inspectors stationed at the Paducah plant "expressed frustration" at having authority over worker safety issues in some parts of the plant, but not in others.
NRC regulates production and related areas leased by USEC Inc. from DOE, which owns the plant. DOE self-regulates other areas, including some uranium hexafluoride cylinder yards, environmental cleanup and waste management sites.
DOE has come under heavy criticism in recent months as a result of two federal lawsuits alleging that workers and the public were poisoned by plant contamination. A chief contention is that exposures were from highly radioactive materials, called transuranics, brought into the plant as contaminants in spent reactor fuel. The fuel was reprocessed at Paducah from the early 1950s to the mid-'70s.
Although NRC and DOE say the plant and its surroundings are now safe, DOE has admitted problems in past years. Merrifield said he could not comment on areas of transuranic concern because NRC has no jurisdiction.
"I didn't see anything today, nor did I have any prior information, that would leave me lingering doubts about the protection of the workers at that facility moving forward," Merrifield said. "Obviously, there are concerns about legacy issues that don't fall under our purview. Those are questions that I think a lot of people need to have answered."
Areas of the plant operated by USEC are safe, he said, noting that 93 percent of USEC workers received no radiation dose last year. Detected doses were well below the commission's maximum standard, Merrifield said.
"Since we came on board five years ago, the material condition of the plant has certainly improved," he said. "USEC (which assumed operation in 1993) has had a lot to do with that."
Merrifield said USEC has made "significant progress" in establishing and adhering to nuclear safety procedures, which required a culture change from previous years when DOE regulated the whole plant. Although NRC has issued more than 100 violations against USEC since 1993, many of those were relatively minor and suggest progress, he said.
"I think the important thing is trending," Merrifield said. "Those numbers are going down."
The commission is concerned that USEC is investing substantial money to make earthquake improvements at the Paducah plant, but DOE-regulated waste areas are a stumbling block, Merrifield said.
"One of the things slowing them down is DOE legacy materials that
continue to be stored there," he said. "Parts of the plant are
cordoned off, and it's very difficult to complete actions to improve the
plant because of those materials."