ERWIN — Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were in Erwin on Thursday evening to discuss the process that led to the agency’s recent decision to renew the operating license of Nuclear Fuel Services for an additional 25 years.
NFS submitted its license renewal application to the NRC on June 30, 2009. On Aug. 2, the NRC announced its decision to grant the renewal of NFS’s operating license for an additional 25 years.
As part of the process, the NRC completed two assessments — one focused on safety and the other focused on environmental impact — as part of the license renewal process. Kevin Ramsey of the NRC said several years ago the NRC changed its policy to allow facilities, such as NFS, to seek license renewals for up to 40 years. He said the factors that supported this decision included an approved integrated safety analysis and program improvements made at NFS in recent years supported the NRC granting a longer term for the facility’s license renewal.
NFS originally sought a 40-year license renewal. However, Ramsey said the policy also states the NRC can issue shorter terms for renewals if its staff has concerns.
“Quite honestly, we have concerns,” Ramsey said. “NFS has a poor compliance history since the last renewal. They also have an order for safety culture improvement actions, which they’re still working on and haven’t been completed yet.”
Ramsey said NRC officials informed NFS of their concerns and that a shorter license renewal term than the 40 years initially requested was being considered. He said NFS, on its own initiative, reduced its request to 25 years.
“We evaluated the revised request, and we decided that the term was reasonable after considering the pros and cons,” Ramsey said. “We know that we maintain the authority to modify, suspend the license if significant new problems are identified.”
The Safety Evaluation Report looked at numerous items in several areas. Ramsey said the areas evaluated, including NFS’s organization and administration, environmental protection measures, radiation protection program, fire safety management measures, chemical safety program, decommissioning program and emergency management plan, were found to be acceptable by NRC inspectors.
James Park with the NRC said the commission also completed an environmental assessment at NFS to determine the significance of the environmental impact associated with the proposed license renewal and alternatives to the proposal. Park said the NRC’s environmental review process began in September 2009 after NFS had submitted its license renewal application to the NRC. In October 2010, the NRC released a draft environment assessment, after which the NRC accepted public comments. Park said the NRC received more than 370 public comments, and the final environmental assessment was issued in October 2011.
Park said the decision by NFS to reduced its renewal request to 25 years came after the environmental assessment had been completed.
The environmental assessment analyzed the environments potentially affected by the license renewal proposal, including areas of land use, noise, air quality, ecology and transportation. Another area it looked at was geology, Park said.
“Based on any information that was available to us, we’re not aware of any sinkholes that have formed on the NFS site,” Park said.
Park said the environmental assessment found the environmental impacts with regard to operations of the facility for the license renewal proposal to be small to moderate in the areas of land use, transportation, soils, groundwater and moderate in the area of public and occupational health from accidents. He said decommissioning impact would be small to moderate in all areas except those of air quality, geology, historic and cultural resources and public and occupational health, where the impact would be small, and moderate in the areas of land use, scenic and visual and waste management.
“Our final conclusions from an environmental perspective were that renewal of the NFS license for 40 years would not significantly affect the quality of the human environment and, therefore preparation of an environmental impact study was not warranted,” Park said.
Members of the public in attendance were also given the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Early questions focused on the cancer risk study looking at areas around NRC-licensed nuclear facilities that the NRC previously contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to carry out. The study’s first phase details were released in March.
Many in attendance were also concerned about the impact sinkholes may have on the safety of NFS. A sinkhole was found on the grounds of Love Chapel Elementary School on Aug. 18, approximately 300 feet from a sinkhole that opened on private property in late 2011.
Ramsey said NFS’s ability to address new items, such as the sinkhole, as they present themselves played a factor in the NRC’s license renewal decision.
“In light of the recent concerns about sinkholes, I would note that when we evaluate the accident analysis, we recognize that as time goes by, new information is going to come into play and there’s going to be a need to update the analysis,” Ramsey said. “There may be conditions which haven’t been previously analyzed. It’s part of our evaluation to verify that they a program in place, a team of trained people with expertise to evaluate new information as it comes to light.”
NRC Senior Public Affairs Roger Hannah said while the NRC has not found an issues with regard to sinkholes in the area, it will continue to evaluate the situation.
“We looked at geology at the site as part of the safety evaluation, and there are no indications that that area is prone to sinkholes because, as Jim Park said, it’s a different kind of geology and farther up grade where that sinkhole occurred, but we’re still evaluating that,” Hannah said. “... I think (NRC official Manuel Crespo) said this: ‘We don’t consider it an immediate safety concern, but we’re certainly going to look at it more carefully.’”