Nuclear Fuel Services May Face Class Action Lawsuit over Radioactive Pollution in Tennessee’s Nolichucky River

People living around the <"">Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) facility in Erwin, Tennessee are mulling a possible class action lawsuit over nuclear contamination in the Nolichucky River. Plaintiffs’ attorneys met with residents earlier this week, and say they are looking into a possible connection between the radioactive material in the river and cancer cases in the area.

The Nolichucky River, located downstream from the Erwin NFS plant, is contaminated with enriched uranium. The river serves as a source of water for Greeneville, Tennessee, as well as surrounding communities. As we’ve reported previously, there are no known sources of enriched uranium in the area other than NFS. The facility produces nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and processes weapons-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Last year, the radioactive material in the Nolichucky River was discovered by Michael Ketterer, a chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University and specialist uranium contamination. According to an earlier report in the Greeneville Sun, Ketterer’s study, believed to be the first scientific research on water and soil outside the boundaries and downstream from the NFS plant, states that an apparent entry point of the enriched uranium-contaminated water into the surface water is through underground discharges from seeps and springs.

Ketterer was conducted his research pro bono on behalf of groups opposed to the 40-year renewal of the operating license for the NFS facility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to rule on that issue sometime this year.

At least 50 people attended a meeting with plaintiffs’ attorneys in Erwin on Wednesday to discuss a potential class action lawsuit against NFS. Resident Lisa Smith told that she came to the meeting to see if her family’s cancer problems could be connected to the NFS facility.

“Too many people from Erwin that’s got cancer and it’s related to something,” says Smith. “There’s a possibility it is nuclear fuels.”

One of the attorneys pointed out that NFS has been criticized for safety violations at the Erwin facility and cited for chronic non-compliance with federal regulations. The standard of operating would be extremely relevant to a determination of a cancer epidemic in this area, the attorney added.

According to a report filed by the Knoxville-Sentinel late last year, the NRC issued an order modifying the company’s special nuclear materials license after the NFS Erwin facility experienced a leak of highly enriched uranium in 2006. In doing so, the commission cited a “deficient safety culture” at the facility. The incident itself led the NRC to issue eight additional citations to NFS. These included the failure to notify the commission of the spill in a timely manner, and failure to meet safety requirements for a critical accident, which could lead to the release of a deadly amount of radiation.

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