Reported By Demetria Kalodimos
ERWIN, Tenn.Nuclear Fuel Services does just what the name implies: It makes nuclear fuel for Navy submarines and reactors. And it's closer to many schools and neighborhoods than the nearest grocery store.
Video: Gov't Urges Nuclear Fuel Factory To Close
It's the Tennessee that state residents want tourists to see. There are mountains mirrored by a sparkling river, the gateway to the Appalachian trail and what the locals like to call the valley beautiful.
"When I moved back home to retire here, I didn't think there was a problem," said Chris Tipton. "It's really pretty horrific what we've found. We're incredibly concerned about the story that we've discovered here."
The story is NFS, a factory that has spent the last 53 years making nuclear fuel for Navy submarines and reactors. It isn't on the outskirts or in some industrial park; NFS is in the center of town, a stone's throw from playgrounds and porch swings.
"I don't know of another town that has such a facility sitting in the heart, in the main artery of a valley," said citizen activist Trudy Wallack. "It's really mind boggling to me how this has happened and how it's been in place for so long."
Were it not for NFS, a retired defense worker, economist, grandmother, crack researcher and college professor might have never met. They've worn out two printers compiling a staggering history of NFS and what they call its frightening safety record.
"I would say the record has actually been very good," said NFS spokeswoman Lauri Turpin. "We have, we've operated safely for over 50 years. We have never had a major incident."
But at the government's urging, NFS is shut down.
"We have two full-time nuclear regulatory residents on site who can observe everything we do every day," said Turpin.
And it appears there's been plenty to see.
By some counts, there have been several hundred problems and violations just in the past 25 years: contamination, injuries, broken alarms, spills, fires, drug problems, leaking trucks and lost radioactive shipments.
On Sept. 11, 2001, there was reason to believe that foreigners were in town watching the plant. A few years later, a suspicious moving van was chased through town, "which was later described as Israeli student movers who were apparently casing NFS and who threw out a vial of material out of their truck and ultimately were arrested," said Linda Modica, another citizen activist
The closest call in recent memory was a nine-gallon spill of uranium solution in 2006. It was kept secret under a sweeping government order for more than a year.
The public still hasn't been told which top executive showed up drunk three times in the days after that spill. Channel 4 filed a Freedom of Information request for his identity but was denied.
"That was the company under prior ownership and leadership," said Turpin. "That person is no longer employed by the company."
"No name, no shame," said Tipson. "You know, the whole place needs to be shamed because we're living here close."
Retired Oak Ridge nuclear quality engineer Buzz Davies said he was shocked this summer to learn that NFS started again manipulating UF6, separating the uranium from the fluorine gas in World War II-era canisters. Davies said UF6 is perhaps the most dangerous thing stored and handled there.
"Nobody anywhere, not even the Russians 50 years ago, nobody processes uranium hexafluoride in the middle of a town," said Davies. "It's terribly lethal, toxic stuff, and to think of trying to process it inside the city limits of any city in the world is just, it falls into the category of, I had an Aunt Sharon whose favorite category was, 'What the hell were you thinking?' and that fits the category very well."
Davies said UF6 will explode when it reacts with water.
"It will invade your mucous membranes and go right to your lungs and react with the fluid in your lungs and dissolve your lungs, and you'll literally drown on your own blood; it's that lethal," he said.
In October, after an accident that melted some metal pipes at NFS, Davies raised his hand at a public meeting, scared again about UF6.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured him not to worry.
"They have very robust controls in place, and the likelihood of an accident is highly unlikely," said the NRC.
Fifteen days later, one of those unpredictable canisters went off.
"We did see the fire, and it was extinguished quickly," Turpin said. "We know how to work with these things safely."
Last week, even while it's shut down, came word of another potential problem at NFS -- again, it's UF6. There may be some canisters that are over-pressurized.
The company has upped the fire protection to five firefighters per shift and has limited any work that would generate heat in the area.
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