WASHINGTON - A factory that makes uranium fuel for nuclear reactors had a spill so bad it kept the plant closed for seven months last year and became one of only three events in all of 2006 serious enough for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to include in an annual report to Congress.
But no member of the public ever did. In fact, no member of the public could find out about the changes. The document describing them, including the notice of hearing rights for anyone who felt adversely affected, was stamped "official use only," meaning that it was not publicly accessible.
"Official use only" is a category below "Secret." Documents in that category are not technically classified but are kept from the public.
The agency would not even have told Congress which factory was involved were it not for the efforts of Gregory B. Jaczko, one of the five commissioners. Mr. Jaczko identified the company, Nuclear Fuel Services of Erwin, Tenn., in a memorandum that became part of the public record. His memorandum said other public documents would allow an informed person to deduce that the factory belonged to Nuclear Fuel Services.
Such secrecy by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now coming under attack by influential members of Congress. These lawmakers argue that the agency is withholding numerous documents about nuclear facilities in the name of national security, but that many withheld documents are not sensitive. The lawmakers say the agency must rebalance its penchant for secrecy with the public's right to participate in the licensing process and its right to know about potential hazards.
Additional details of the 2006 event are coming to light now because of a letter sent Tuesday to the nuclear agency by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee chairman, Representative John D. Dingell, and the chairman of the oversight subcommittee, Representative Bart Stupak, both Democrats of Michigan, say the commission "went far beyond" the need to protect security information by keeping documents about Nuclear Fuel Services, a private company, from the public.
The agency, the congressmen said, "has removed hundreds of otherwise innocuous documents relating to the N.F.S. plant from public view."
Mr. Jaczko, in a telephone interview, said, "Ultimately, we regulate on behalf of the public, and it's important for them to have a role." He said he thought other information about Nuclear Fuel Services that should be public had been marked "official use only."
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With a resurgence of nuclear plant construction expected after a 30-year hiatus, agency officials say frequently that they are trying to strike a balance between winning public confidence by regulating openly and protecting sensitive information. A commission spokesman, Scott Burnell, said the "official use only" designation was under review.
As laid out by the commission's report to Congress and other sources, the event at the Nuclear Fuel Service factory was discovered when a supervisor saw a yellow liquid dribbling under a door and into a hallway. Workers had previously described a yellow liquid in a "glove box," a sealed container with gloves built into the sides to allow a technician to manipulate objects inside, but managers had decided it was ordinary uranium.
In fact, it was highly enriched uranium that had been declared surplus from the weapons inventory of the Energy Department and sent to the plant to be diluted to a strength appropriate for a civilian reactor.
In a puddle, the uranium is not particularly hazardous, but if it formed a more spherical shape, the commission says, it could become a "critical mass," a quantity and shape of nuclear fuel sufficient to sustain a chain reaction, in this case outside a reactor.
According to the letter sent by the lawmakers, the puddle, containing about nine gallons, reached to within four feet of an elevator pit. Had it flowed into the pit and reached a depth of several inches, it would have been in a shape that might have supported a chain reaction. The letter from the congressmen says the agency's report suggests "that it was merely a matter of luck that a criticality accident did not occur."
If the material had gone critical, "it is likely that at least one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute health effects or death," the commission said.
A company spokesman, Tony Treadway, said the elevator was better described as a dumbwaiter.
Generally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does describe nuclear incidents and changes in licenses. But in 2004, according to the committee's letter, the Office of Naval Reactors, part of the Energy Department, reached an agreement with the commission that any correspondence with Nuclear Fuel Services would be marked "official use only." The plant makes submarine fuel.
The memorandum that declared such correspondence to be "official use only" was itself designated "official use only."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company