The U.S. agency in charge of nuclear power abrogated a three-year secrecy policy and was going to release hundreds of documents involving the troubled operations.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it had directed its staff to review and make public some 1,900 documents that had been kept secret under the veil of national security involving Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin and BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Both plants supply fuel to the U.S. Navy's nuclear fleet. The NRC, worried about releasing sensitive information, has withheld all documents about the two facilities since 2004, including a report on a potentially lethal spill of highly enriched uranium in 2006 at Erwin.
"While we must continue to be mindful of the national security aspects of these facilities, we must also remember that our regulatory oversight process should be performed in an open and transparent manner that instills public trust," NRC Chairman Dale Klein wrote in his ballot supporting the policy change.
The decision followed congressional pressure and an outcry from environmentalists and residents near the Tennessee facility after the NRC revealed the uranium leak in April as part of the NRC's annual report to Congress. The spill was one of three major incidents involving NRC licensees in 2006.
No one was injured when 9 gallons (34 liters) of highly enriched uranium spilled onto a floor at the privately held Nuclear Fuel Services plant on March 6, 2006. However, the NRC said the solution could have accumulated in such a way as to cause an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. "It was likely that at least one worker would have received an exposure high enough to cause acute health effects or death," the report said.
The public did not learn about it until more than a year later because of an "Official Use Only" policy on all documents at NFS and BWX Technologies. The NRC adopted the policy after the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Reactors raised concerns about disclosing sensitive information.