The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to decide this week whether a union complaint about possibly unsafe conditions at a Tennessee uranium plant warrants an inspection.
The complaint was filed Friday by officials of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, which represents 8,000 workers at about 20 nuclear plants around the United States. They maintain that accidents have occurred or dangerous conditions have existed at plants the union is striking in Erwin, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio. The plants process weapons-grade uranium.
In a complaint to the NRC, the union requested an immediate inspection of the Erwin facility. The plant is operated by Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., of Rockville, and produces enrich uranium fuel for nuclear submarines.
The union alleged that radioactive wastewater may be flowing from the plant into the Nolichucky River because experienced workers and radiation monitors are on strike. The river is used for drinking water by Greenville and Jonesboro, Tenn., the union said.
A spokesman for Nuclear Fuel Services read a statement Friday that said the plant was "in compliance with its federal and state license conditions and NRC regulations."
According to the union, regular operators at the Edwin plant, receive 18 months of training. The NRC confirmed that the plant is being operated by non-union salaried employes, some of whom are not fully trained. But the NRC said the facility's wastewater treatment plant is being operated by a plant engineer and a building foreman.
"Our inspector feels they are qualified to operate the wastewater plant," the NRC spokesman said.
Kenneth Clark, an NRC Atlanta regional office spokesman, said the agency sent two inspectors to the Erwin plant after the union communicated its complaint verbally last Tuesday. Clark said that a third inspector is assigned full time to the plant.
"The plant has not yet released any water into the river since the strike began 12 weeks ago," said Clark. He added, however, that radioactive wastewater from the plant was being contained in holding ponds.
Clark said that the inspectors were primarily concerned with making sure no nuclwar material was stolen during the strike and that nonstriking workers at the plant were not contaminated with radioactivity. He said the plant is operating during the strike.
OCAW vice president Anthony Mazzocchi said the union has had other strikes at Erwin plant and that the Portsmout plant, which is operated by Goodyear Atomic Corp., has been struck for a total of one of the five years it has been in operation.
"During a strike these plants became a no-man's land," Mazzocchi said."Essentially all the rules are off and the company can play high-risk poker with the public."
Portsmouth plant general manager Nate Hurt said that radiation monitors at the plant were not currently on strike.