Honeywell International Inc did not properly classify a uranium hexafluoride leak at its Metropolis, Illinois, plant last month, according to a U.S. regulatory event report on Thursday.
According to the report, Honeywell 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, instead of declaring it a “plant emergency,” which is an internal company classification.
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.
Honeywell’s Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which is then enriched to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants.
Uranium hexafluoride is radioactive, and if released into the air can be chemically toxic.
Honeywell has said no one at the plant was hurt by the leak, which it said was caused by an equipment failure. According to the company, while a small amount equivalent to a pint’s worth of uranium hexafluoride was released, there was no indication that the surrounding community was endangered.
NRC inspectors are continuing their probe, including reviewing a company calculation of how much of the substance was released and checking off-site vegetation samples. Hannah said the agency had not yet found anything that suggests the surrounding community was put at risk by 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.”
The incident has come amid a labor dispute between Honeywell and its workforce. About 135 members of United Steelworkers Local 7-669 have been locked out from the plant since the start of August, after a three-year contract expired, and the union on Thursday seized on Honeywell’s misclassification of the leak.
“It’s a big deal because the community is depending on Honeywell’s classification of the event for their safety,” said John Smith, a spokesman for USW Local 7-669.