Nuclear Fuel Services has started turning weapons-grade uranium from the Savannah River Site into commercial reactor fuel for the Tennessee Valley Authority to produce electricity.

"The first shipments have already left the facility," Tony Treadway, spokesman for the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in Erwin, about 120 miles north of Knoxville, said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday through a notice in the Federal Register that NFS received a third and final license amendment to begin "downblending" 33 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy plant in South Carolina.

The material will be converted into low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel for TVA, the nation's largest public utility.

The decision, the result of a regulatory process that began in 2002, came without public hearing.

Environmental opponents, including the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Environmental Council and the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, plan to file an appeal Friday demanding a full environmental impact statement.

Diane Curran, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the environmental groups, said her clients support the project's objective of turning Cold War swords into plowshares.

"But what this whole process looks like is a railroad, because the NRC has done the barest minimum of environmental study of this, and it deserves better. My clients deserve better," she said.

"They deserve to have the federal agency that is supposedly regulating this process to really take a hard look at ways that the environmental risk could be minimized."

The regulatory agency issued a 92-page report supporting the latest licensing amendment as meeting federal safety standards.

"NFS has constructed hazard analysis that identified and evaluated and established safety controls to provide reasonable assurance of safe facility operation," the regulatory agency wrote.

The NFS plant, which continues to supply fuel for U.S. nuclear submarines, is in the middle of Erwin in northeast Tennessee near the Nolichucky River. About 2,800 people live within 15 miles of the plant; businesses, a health care center and a school are also within the area.