PIKETON, Ohio – Radioactive material used to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors leaked for three weeks from a U.S. Department of Energy plant before being detected, but the company said Sunday that there were no abnormal levels in the air.
The leak of 108.8 pounds of uranium hexafluoride was discovered Friday, said Tim Matchett of the Goodyear Atomic Corp., which operates the plant for the DOE.
“There was no significant concentration (in the air),” Matchett said about air monitoring tests. “It provides further confirmation that there would be no adverse effects.” He said air samples at the site and off-site showed normal readings during the three-week release, and that results of soil vegetation samples and additional air samples would be available early this week.
The material apparently escaped as a gas through a vent at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The leak was discovered when data from a new air emissions monitoring system was checked, Matchett said.
The material was “slightly more radioactive than that which would be found in nature,” he said.
Uranium hexafluoride is used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear reactors.
If ingested in harmful doses, the compound can cause liver damage and other illness.
At a uranium-processing plant owned by Kerr-McGee Corp. in Webbers Falls, Okla., 29,500 pounds of the same material escaped from a ruptured tank Jan. 4, killing one worker and sending more than 100 people to hospitals.
In a statement Friday, Gov. Richard Celeste questioned why the discharge was not discovered sooner.
Company officials do not believe the leak affected the health of the employees, local residents or the environment, Matchett said, adding the company was trying to determine what caused the leak at the 30-year-old plant in southern Ohio. About 2,000 people live in the town.
The new monitoring system was installed as a backup to the existing traps in the air emissions system, Matchett said. The system had recently been opened for maintenance, he said, adding that he did not know if that may have led to the discharge.
Officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not return telephone calls made to an emergency number over the weekend, and there was no answer Saturday at the offices of the Energy Department.
A U.S. General Accounting Office report last month said the plant has a number of environmental problems, including the radioactive contamination of ground water in on-site wells.
The GAO said data compiled by the plant’s operators show that the contamination was within limits set by Department of Energy, but that some state and federal officials have questioned the reliability of the data.
The GAO found that here is widespread polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in and around the plant but that opeators have taken action to clean it and minimize worker exposure to it.
The report also said the plant releases significant quantities of fluoride gas but was studying ways to reduce the releases in the event the government adopted regulations limiting them. It also said the plant is not complying with hazardous-waste laws but was acting to correct the deficiencies found.