Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin has put Tennessee on a terror target map by playing a key role in defense. It's the sole provider of nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy's submarines and aircraft carriers, but safety concerns have shut NFS down.
Neighbors are worried about radioactivity, the environment, their health and what they call lax regulation by the state and the feds.
A former worker says she was fired for blowing the whistle.
"I started asking questions from day one and trying to get things fixed," said Karen Brackett, who said she was excited to put her chemistry degree to work at NFS.
It's been closed since Christmas, shut down in the name of safety. Brackett said she was worried about her own safety all the time.
"They have some safety issues and a safety culture that has to change, or else they are on the road to a disaster and that's what is so important, that they understand it, and I don't think that they do," she said.
Brackett said she worked in an area three weeks before learning there had been a radioactive spill there. While cleaning up one day she stumbled onto the leftovers.
"I found raw material out in the open that I had been walking around for three weeks, but because it was above my eye level, I did not know it was there," Brackett said. "And all around it, again, was condensation from dripping ventilation, and it scared me. It really scared me."
Brackett said by "raw material," she means radioactive material.
She said NFS was short handed, with more repairs than maintenance staff could handle. She saw growing stacks of emergency work orders and had supervisors OK "quick fixes."
"I personally have applied duct tape to keep condensation from being exposed to nuclear material," she said. "If enough meets, you have a criticality, and that's basically a chain reaction."
Brackett said that reaction could be injurious to people. Yet veteran workers seemed unfazed.
"There are a lot of workers who've been there 20, 30, 40 years, and it's an everyday thing to them, and they have no concerns about it," she said. "It's like if you live beside a railroad track and you get accustomed to the sound."
But outside the gates, opponents are making noise like never before.
"You saw it. Folks live next door. The stacks are rising to the level of people's windows just down the street, and the wind blows in all directions depending on the time of day here, and people are being exposed constantly by what they call routine effluents and discharges," said citizen activist Linda Modica.
There has never been a scientific study of health in this area, but neighbors said that on one street alone, 17 people have died of cancer.
Brain cancer among adults is almost double -- 97.5 percent -- the state rate in this one county, though there's debate about the reliability of that number.
So it was mapped out, data was gathered and federal health researchers were convinced to take a look. But in the end, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease couldn't even consider the core issue, radiation, saying by statute, "Nuclear materials cannot be addressed."
"Our big concern is about the water and the contamination of the land has led to the contamination of the water and the fact that Erwin takes its water supplies, public drinking water from groundwater, wells and springs ,some of which is very close to NFS," said Modica.
"There' s just no data that would support that anything that happens at NFS would affect cancer rates in the area, and we monitor extensively anything that goes into the air, anything that goes into the water, and we have very specific guidelines," said NFS spokeswoman Lauri Turpin.
Brackett, the NFS employee, said she believes she was fired for blowing the whistle. She has told her story to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But like many whistleblowers in Tennessee, she had just 30 days to file a complaint with the commissioner of Labor and Workforce development.
She can file a lawsuit, though, and is considering a possible run for the state Legislature.
NFS has asked the government that its license be renewed for another 40 years, but there has been no word yet on when it might re-open.
Since the Channel 4 I-Team's trip to Erwin, 150 NFS workers have been laid off because of the shutdown.
To retrieve reports, go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web site. Records are available in the Electronic Reading Room. Publicly available documents are stored on ADAMS (Agency Documents Access and Management System). You will need to enter the item number to view the report. You can view the "actual event reports" cited on NFS in the accompanying document: 2008 NRC Event Reports.