NRC meeting on Laser Enrichment

Last night, I went to the NRC public meeting regarding licensing of a laser enrichment facility at the GE-Hitachi site north of Wilmington, NC. I’d never been to such a meeting before so I was curious to hear what was said and see who attended the meeting.

The meeting was set up in a space at UNCW, the local university. That was the first fun thing, I don’t know all the buildings on campus, so just finding the building and a place to park was amusing. School is still in session at UNCW (finals week, I believe) so there were lots of students around.

The NRC brought in a retired NRC staff person to act as a moderator, which I thought was very effective. It prevented any one individual or group from dominating the proceedings. The meeting started with introductions and presentations by the NRC staff.

I learned a new acronym (we nuclear types really, really love acronyms) IROFS. Item Relied On For Safety. Apparently that’s the term for safety related items in nuclear fuel cycle facilities as opposed to nuclear power plants. Why in the world do we have to have different terms for the same concept? Is this just another way to confuse people?

I thought the NRC did a nice job of going over at a high level all of the various areas they look at in granting a license to a facility. The presenter, Nick Baker, spend some time talking about risk management. In simple terms, if an event has a high consequence, it must be made highly unlikely, or even better “not credible”. Not credible means impossible in regular English. He also explained passive controls as essentially setting up the facility to make safe operation automatically happen without active intervention by people or equipment.

There was some discussion about decommissioning funds. Unlike many industries, nuclear facilities licensed by the NRC must put together a plan for funding the eventual decommissioning of the site. This plan must include protections for the possibility of bankruptcy by the company that is applying to build the facility. The plan is reviewed every few years and updated. If the projections change, the company is required to increase the funding.

Then the NRC reviewed the environmental impact statement in quite a lot of detail that I’m not going to try to repeat here. I was impressed with their thoroughness. Apparently, something of archaeological significance was found on the site, and they are actually shifting the roads to avoid damage to the location.

The NRC expects to issue license September 2012. The folks at GE don’t plant to start construction until 2014. That seems like a long delay, but I presume there’s a business reason on GE’s part.

Finally, they opened the floor for questions from the audience. It was very polite, with several citizens expressing support for the project as well as asking questions in more detail. Most folks with concern were worried about potential contamination with radiation of the environment. The NRC explained how the facility will contain material and sequester any dangerous compounds.

One individual had come from South Carolina to raise concerns about proliferation. The NRC staff tried to explain the law regarding who has jurisdiction regarding proliferation concerns. It is a very complicated subject with 5 agencies having input to the matter. But in the end, the State Department has the final say.

There were also questions regarding the depleted uranium. It will be stored on site as Uranium hexafluoride (UF6), in canisters. At ambient temperatures, the material is a solid and the canisters will be slightly below atmospheric pressure, so if a leak occurs (like a shot), the canister will pull air in, the chemistry within tends to be self-sealing and will likely reseal the leak. Eventually, these tailings will be delivered to the DOE, but GE will have to pay them to handle disposal. That payment is a part of the decommissioning fund.

Since we live in hurricane territory, someone asked what would be impact of cat 4 hurricane? The NRC responded that the facility is designed to withstand it. In fact, it is built to same standard as nuclear power plants.

Finally, apparently the state has recently identified a rare flower and a rare squirrel on the site. This was new information that had only been presented to the NRC on April 23. They are still looking into the impacts.

With that the meeting ended. I was pleased by the polite interchange between the public and the NRC. Having heard of some terrible meetings where protests and abuse of presenters occurred, I was encouraged by the way the meeting was conducted and the behavior of everyone in the room.