NFS Nuclear Plant Blamed for Radioactive Contamination in Tennessee’s Nolichucky River

The Nolichucky River in Tennessee, located downstream from a Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant, is contaminated with enriched uranium. The <"">radioactive material in the Nolichucky River was discovered last year by Michael Ketterer, a chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University who specializes in uranium contamination, according to the Greeneville Sun. Ketterer’s study constitutes what is believed to be the first scientific research on water and soil outside the boundaries and downstream from the NFS plant.

According to that report, Ketterer conducted the research pro bono on behalf of regional groups opposed to the 40-year renewal of the operating license for the NFS facility, which is located in Erwin, Tennessee. The facility produces nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and processes weapons-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

The decision on the NFS license renewal by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to come sometime this year. Ketterer’s findings on the uranium contamination were presented to the NRC during a public hearing last November.

The Nolichucky River serves as a source of water for Greeneville, Tennessee, as well as surrounding communities. According to a report on the Facing South website, there are no known sources of enriched uranium in the area other than NFS.

Ketterer’s study was based on water and soil samples collected on the Nolichucky downstream from the NFS facility. The samples tested, collected by a member of the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, came from Davy Crockett Lake, just east of the Oscar B. Lovette Bridge over the Nolichucky River in southern Greene County, and at an additional location several kilometers downstream from the Davy Crockett Dam, the Greeneville Sun said. The samples were gathered from the two locations on several occasions over the summer.

The study found “enriched uranium signature, namely Uranium 235 and Uranium 238 atom ratios in excess of the naturally occurring value.” The research team also found team also found that mollusks in Davy Crockett Lake show uranium signatures that matched those in the water, according to the Facing South report.

The study states that an apparent entry point of the enriched uranium-contaminated water into the surface water is through underground discharges from seeps and springs, the Greeneville Sun said.

According to the Facing South report, the concentrations of enriched uranium that Ketterer found were low and did not exceed federal drinking water standards. However, the federal water discharge permit for NFS says the facility is not supposed to be releasing any enriched uranium. Ketterer said his findings pointed to a need for further research.

According to The Greeneville Sun, Ketterer’s research team was not being paid for its work, which is supported with funds from the Environmental Geochemistry laboratory.

The NRC, which will make the final determination on the facility’s permit renewal, does not conduct its own testing, but instead relies upon tests conducted by the NFS inside the boundaries of the plant, the Greeneville Sun said.

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