January 8, 2000
NRC not expanding controls
By Joe Walker
Calling the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant safe, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve says his agency is ready to regulate historically contaminated areas of the plant but isn't asking for the job.
"We have not been talking with Congress about the issue," said Meserve, who became chairman of the NRC in October. "We do have a close and cooperative relationship with the Department of Energy."
Meserve spoke with reporters after a plant tour that lasted more than three hours. The plant has drawn massive publicity since two federal lawsuits were filed last year alleging that past DOE contractors covertly poisoned workers and the public.
He said his visit was coincidental to U.S. Attorney Steven Reed's trip to the plant to oversee the start of soil sampling for a Justice Department probe into the lawsuit allegations. Meserve said his trip had been planned for months as part of an effort to see NRC-regulated facilities.
On Thursday, Meserve visited the Honeywell (formerly Allied Signal) plant in Metropolis, Ill. Honeywell makes uranium hexafluoride, which the Paducah plant enriches for use in nuclear fuel.
The regulatory framework at Paducah is complex because DOE owns the huge plant and regulates areas of past contamination. Active production areas of the facility, leased and operated by USEC Inc., are overseen by NRC.
Two months ago, NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield toured the plant and said NRC inspectors stationed there were frustrated at having authority over worker safety issues in some areas, but not others. He said his agency could regulate DOE parts of the plant cost-efficiently, but that would require an act of Congress.
Meserve said Friday that although NRC has undertaken "pilot projects" to better understand the job of regulating DOE areas, it is not pushing the issue because DOE has said it wants to continue as environmental regulator.
Overlapping of DOE and NRC jurisdiction came to a head by stalling a project to increase the earthquake resistance of production buildings whose piping systems are too stiff. USEC wrote NRC saying it was slow to finish the last 25 percent of the work because it conflicted with some DOE radioactive waste storage areas.
"Each task implicates the other," Meserve said of the problem, noting that USEC is preparing a schedule to complete the work, which is an NRC nuclear safety issue. "We intend for it to get done with all deliberate speed."
USEC also is planning to get the plant certified by NRC to enrich uranium to a level suitable for use as nuclear fuel. That would make Paducah independent of its sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, where Paducah sends product for completed enrichment to nuclear fuel standards. Because of market trends and having a glut of uranium from Russian nuclear warheads, USEC is selling enough product to justify keeping only one plant open, critics say.
Meserve said USEC's push to complete the increased enrichment certification and the seismic upgrade are unrelated because the first is business-driven and the second is compliance-driven.
Although NRC has issued more than 100 violations against USEC since 1993, many of those were relatively minor and suggest progress, Merrifield said during his earlier visit. Since then, the agency proposed an $88,000 fine after finding that USEC discriminated against a manager by demoting him in August 1998 because he raised safety issues at the plant.
Although USEC claimed the transfer was based on job performance, an investigation and subsequent information led the NRC to determine that the transfer was based partly on the man's raising concerns about quality assurance. USEC told the NRC in October that it was taking extensive corrective action to help managers address employee safety concerns and encourage a "nuclear safety conscious" work environment, the NRC said.
USEC has until Jan. 19 to pay the fine or challenge it. Meserve said the firm has not told the NRC of its decision.
The action followed, but was unrelated to, an NRC investigation last fall into radiation protection programs at the plant. The NRC probe was in response to a so-called whistle-blower's lawsuit by three employees alleging, among other things, unsafe working conditions.
Despite the more than 100 violations, Meserve said Friday that the plant is run safely and "generally in accordance" with NRC guidelines.
"We have found that there is a good radiation-control program at
this site," he said. "It is sufficient to protect the workers
and the public."