A three-year veil of secrecy in the name of national security was used to keep the public in the dark about the handling of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear fuel processing plant — including a leak that could have caused a deadly, uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
The leak turned out to be one of nine violations or test failures since 2005 at privately owned Nuclear Fuel Services, a longtime supplier of fuel to the U.S. Navy's nuclear fleet.
The public was never told about the problems when they happened. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed them for the first time last month when it released an order demanding improvements at the company but no fine.
Um. No fine? Nothing?
In 2004, the government became so concerned about releasing nuclear secrets that the commission removed more than 1,740 documents from its public archives — even some that apparently involved basic safety violations at the company, which operates a 65-acre gated complex in tiny Erwin, about 120 miles north of Knoxville.
The commission briefly mentioned in its annual report to Congress a March 6, 2006, uranium leak at Nuclear Fuel Services. Agency commissioners, apparently struck by the significance of the event, took a special vote to skirt the "Official Use Only" rule so that Nuclear Fuel Services would be identified in the report as the site of the uranium leak.
Just over 9 gallons of highly enriched uranium solution leaked from a transfer line into a protected glovebox and spilled onto the floor. The commission said there were two areas where the solution potentially could have collected in such a way to cause an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
"It is likely that at least one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute health effects or death," the agency wrote.
Agency spokesman McIntyre said it may be difficult to separate Nuclear Fuel Service's secret work for the Navy from its public work converting bomb-grade uranium to commercial reactor fuel. The leak happened on the commercial reactor side.
In a stinging letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman in July, Michigan Democratic congressmen John Dingell and Bart Stupak said the agency went beyond its objective of withholding sensitive security information.
McIntyre said the commission didn't fine Nuclear Fuel Services because the agency wanted the company to improve its safety culture.
Right. Sure. So Nuclear Fuel Services couldn't have been fined AND improved its safety culture, eh? That's just baloney. I'll bet some money DID change hands, though, just not in the way of a fine.
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