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.We're really not going to survive the next 17 months, are we?
The leak turned out to be one of nine violations or test failures since 2005 at privately owned Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., 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.
In 2004, the government became so concerned about releasing nuclear secrets that the commission removed more than 1,740 documents from its public archive - 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 Associated Press first reported the policy in May after the commission briefly mentioned in its annual report to Congress a March 6, 2006, uranium leak at Nuclear Fuel Services. The leak was one of three ``abnormal occurrences'' of license holders cited during the year.
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.
Some 35 liters, or just over 9 gallons, of highly enriched uranium solution leaked from a transfer line into a protected glovebox and spilled onto the floor. The leak was discovered when a supervisor saw a yellow liquid ``running into a hallway'' from under a door, according to one document.
The commission said there were two areas, the glovebox and an old elevator shaft, 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.
``We don't want any security information out there that's going to help a terrorist,'' agency Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said in a newly released transcript from a closed commission meeting May 30. But ``that's entirely separate'' from dealing with an event that could have killed a worker at the plant.
``The pendulum maybe swung too far,'' agreed Luis Reyes, the commission's executive director for operations. ``We want to make sure we don't go the other way, but we need to come back to some reasonable middle point.''