Nuclear Plant Leak Misclassified

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 @ 10:11 AM gHale

A uranium hexafluoride leak at a Metropolis, IL, plant last month did not end up properly classified, according to a U.S. regulatory event report.

Honeywell International Inc. should have classified the Oct. 26 incident as an “alert,” the less serious of two official emergency event designations by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), instead of declaring it a “plant emergency,” which is an internal company classification.

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An “alert” classification would have required Honeywell to make certain notifications, including informing the NRC, about the leak, agency spokesman Roger Hannah said. Instead, the NRC found out about the leak after a member of the public called the regulator, which then contacted Honeywell, Hannah said.

A Honeywell spokesman said that the company did notify local authorities, and that the change in classification would not have altered how it responded to the leak, only its notification procedures.

The Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which then undergoes an enrichment process so nuclear power plants can use it as fuel.

Uranium hexafluoride is radioactive, and if released into the air can be chemically toxic.

Honeywell has said no one at the plant suffered any injury from the leak, which it said was the result of an equipment failure. While a small amount, equivalent to a pint’s worth, of uranium hexafluoride released, there was no indication the surrounding community was in any danger, the company said.

NRC inspectors are continuing their probe, including reviewing a company calculation of how much of the substance released and checking off-site vegetation samples. Hannah said the agency did not find anything suggesting the surrounding community was at risk from the leak.

“It’s always concerning when a facility doesn’t recognize the potential seriousness of an event,” Hannah said. “In this case, it was fortunate there were not more serious consequences.”

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