Federal officials, concerned about the shutdown since September of the Navy's sole nuclear fuel supplier after the loss of more than 20 pounds of enriched uranium, are considering revoking the plant's operating license and shifting control of the facility to the Department of Energy.
Sources said yesterday that Navy officials have expressed concern about the cutoff of nuclear fuel supplies for submarines and other nuclear-powered vessels since the Nuclear-Regulatory Commission ordered the Erwin, Tenn., plant closed.
If the operating license were revoked and supervision of the plant turned over to the Energy Department from the NRC, the plant could be reopened as an unlicensed defense facility under the control of the DOE. The Energy Department already operates several nuclear facilities, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The NBC ordered the plant shut down after the licensed operator, Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., of Rockville, Md., a subsidiary of Getty Oil, reported Sept. 17 on an inventory of the fuel processing operation between June and August. Its inventory disclosed the disappearance of more than 20 pounds of weapons grade uranium -- enough material to make at least one atomic bomb.
The NBC's licensing arrangement with Nuclear Fuel Services requires that the plant be shut down if more than nine kilograms -- 19.8 pounds -- of nuclear material is found to be missing.
The Tennessee plant is the first step in a three-stage manufacturing operation for the Navy's nuclear fuel. Sources said the plant's operations cannot be replaced by any other facility in the country.
The sources discounted one report yesterday that the Navy has stockpiled several years' supply of nuclear fuel. The actual amount, while classified, is considerably less, the sources said.
A Navy spokesman yesterday declined to comment immediately on the nuclear fuel situation.
Several sources said that federal investigators have recommended the NRC revoke the operating license of the Erwin plant.
At a Dec. 14 meeting, the sources said, the five NRC commissioners and other officials were told that while no evidence had been found to indicate the missing nuclear material was stolen, the plant has had a long history of missing uranium supplies.
The NRC commissioners are studying at least three options for the plant. Souraces said a final decision could come within several weeks after the commissioners consult with the Navy and the Energy Department.
The preferred option at present, sources said, would be revoking the plants's operating license and transferring the plant to the jurisdiction of the Energy Department. A license cancellation would be the first such federal action ever taken against a major nuclear facility.
The commissioners are also studying the idea of revoking the operating license and closing the plant. But sources said this would leave the Navy with a fuel supply problem.
The third option could be to allow Nuclear Fuel Services to reopen the plant under strict security and accounting procedures.
That option, however, is likely to draw fire from nuclear critics and some federal officials who have pointed to Nuclear Fuel Services' poor accounting record. According to NRC records, the company has been unable to account for more than 150 pounds of enriched uranium at its Erwin facility in the last 10 years.
Sources said that company and federal investigators have carefully searched the plant since the uranium was learned to be missing in September. The precise amount of the missing fuel over 20 pounds in classified, sources said.