KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A three-year veil of secrecy in the name of national security was used to keep the public in the dark about the handling of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear fuel processing plant — including a leak that could have caused a deadly, uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
The leak turned out to be one of nine violations or test failures since 2005 at privately owned Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., a supplier of fuel to the U.S. Navy's nuclear fleet.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed the problems for the first time last month when it released an order demanding improvements at the company but imposing no fine.
In 2004, the government became so concerned about releasing nuclear secrets that the commission removed more than 1,740 documents from its public archive — even some that apparently involved basic safety violations at the company, which operates a 65-acre gated complex in tiny Erwin, about 120 miles north of Knoxville.
Members of Congress and environmental groups have criticized the policy, and now the commission staff is drafting recommendations that may ease its restrictions.
But environmental activists are still suspicious and may challenge the commission's decision not to fine Nuclear Fuel Services for the violations.
"That party is not over — the full story of what is going on up there," said Ann Harris, a member of the Sierra Club's national nuclear task force.
Nuclear Fuel Services has been supplying fuel to the Navy since the 1960s. More recently, it has also been converting the government's stockpile of weapons-grade uranium into commercial reactor fuel.
While reviewing the commission's public Web page in 2004, the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Reactors found what it considered protected information about Nuclear Fuel Service's work for the Navy.
The commission responded by sealing every document related to Nuclear Fuel Services and BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Va., the only two companies licensed by the agency to manufacture, possess and store highly enriched uranium.
Some 35 liters, or about 9 gallons, of highly enriched uranium solution leaked from a transfer line into a protected glovebox and spilled onto the floor. The leak was discovered when a supervisor saw a yellow liquid "running into a hallway" from under a door, according to one document.