Pike County News Watchman

Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005

Plant concerns voiced at NRC meeting

Staff Writer

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the next step in the potential licensing of an American centrifuge plant in Piketon by hosting a public meeting Thursday evening.

NRC officials held the forum at the Vern Riffe Career and Technology Center in Piketon to document comments and questions from community members concerning Bethesda, Md.-based USEC Inc.'s next-generation uranium enrichment facility to be built on the site of the shuttered Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The commission, last month, released its draft environmental impact statement, predicting that construction and operation of the plant could have several small and moderate impacts on the community.

A final report will determine whether USEC receives a 30-year license to operate its centrifuge plant.

  NRC meeting facilitator Chip Cameron made it clear that the draft document is not complete and that statements from concerned public members will be considered and some added to the report at a later date.

"I stress 'draft,'" he said.  "It will not be finalized until we evaluate all the comments we hear tonight."

One local woman, like others at the meeting, used her comments to strongly discourage NRC from granting the USEC license.

"If you give this company a license to kill more people, I want to know who'll be liable," said Vina Colley, a long-time naysayer against continued plant operations, in a statement at the meeting.

A former electrician at Portsmouth and self-proclaimed whistleblower, Colley claims she was made sick by poor worker health and safety practices at the plant. Workers have died due to direct exposure to radiation and volatile chemicals, and residents near the plant are being poisoned by toxic discharges into local waterways, she says.

Colley currently heads up Piketon/Portsmouth Residents for Environmental Safety and Security, an environmental group looking out for the health of the community and National Nuclear Workers for Justice.

Scott Flanders, deputy director for the Division of Waste Management and Environmental Protection in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, responded to Colley's statement.

He said if the NRC, during announced or surprise inspections of the Portsmouth plant, discovered that USEC had broken environmental or safety regulations after being granted a license, "an enforcement action would be taken, and the licensee would be held accountable."

USEC Inc. American Centrifuge Public Affairs Manager Angie Duduit doesn't believe NRC violations will be an issue of concern, given the company's prior performance.

"In November 2004, a license performance review was held, and NRC gave a two-year report of performance at the plant," Duduit said.  "They said we were operating the plant safely, according to their regulations."

Local resident Geoffrey Sea spoke before an audience of community members, stressing the importance of minimizing impact to the Barnes home, a house he owns that was built in 1804 near the current plant site, as well as other historical buildings in the area.

He was also quick to point out that a well field that could supply water to the new centrifuge plant is located on property also containing Native American earthworks.

The NRC did not consider his input regarding the cultural impact of the centrifuge plant when drafting its EIS, he said, despite repeated requests on his part to be involved.

"You never consulted the people you asked to consult you," Sea told NRC officials.

A final statement by Sea dealt with USEC and its supposed inability to convert its own depleted uranium hexafluoride - a waste by-product of the enrichment - to a less hazardous form using a DOE facility being built at the Portsmouth site.

Depleted uranium from centrifuge operations might accumulate since the conversion facility can only be used for legacy waste produced by DOE before privatizing the Portsmouth plant in 1992, he said.

"It's not available to treat USEC's private waste," Sea said.  "It's not capable and not designed to treat USEC waste."

Sea's statement, however, was later discredited by Pete Miner, director of regulatory and quality assurance for USEC Inc., in an interview following the public meeting.

Miner said that, while the mechanism is not set up at this time, his company could acquire the authorization to convert its waste using Energy Department facilities.

"Statutes clearly specify that DOE would take our tails (waste), or anyone else's, contrary to what Mr. Sea said," he said.

David Manuta, Ph.D., a local chemist and former research staff member at the plant, praised the NRC for work performed on its draft EIS, pointing out only two errors in the document.

He also spoke directly to those opposing construction of the American centrifuge plant, encouraging them to provide more support for the effort since safety and health standards have improved considerably over the five decades the Portsmouth plant has been in operation.

"There should be fewer problems with centrifuge than with gaseous diffusion," Manuta said.  "When the gaseous diffusion plant came about in the '50s, the NRC didn't exist.

"That era has come and gone, fortunately."

The NRC expects to have its EIS finalized with public comments by April 2006. USEC's commercial centrifuge license could then be granted by February 2007.