METROPOLIS, Ill. – Human error caused a radioactive gas leak from a nuclear fuel plant, sending four to hospitals and causing one nearby resident reddened skin and lung exposure, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report.
The Dec. 22 leak from the Honeywell International plant released seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride gas that rose 86 feet and rode light winds into a residential area, according to the report, which the agency released at a public meeting Tuesday at a Massac County courtroom.
The gas is mildly radioactive but is considered a chemical threat because it emits toxic hydrogen fluoride when exposed to moisture in the air, officials said.
A plant operator manipulating valves as part of a plant reconfiguration project forgot to complete the job, creating the leak, said Jay Henson, chief of the NRC’s fuel facility inspection branch.
More than two dozen people were evacuated from homes during the 2:30 a.m. leak at the plant in far southern Illinois, across the Ohio River from Kentucky.
“We’re committed to doing what’s necessary to fix the issues at the plant so this doesn’t happen again,” Honeywell plant manager Rory O’Kane said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ll also be addressing the emergency response process so that in the unlikely event this does occur again, everybody is better informed.”
Many people attending the meeting said they were bothered by Honeywell’s response. Several said they never were notified of the hour-long leak.
Keith Davis, director of the county’s 911 system, objected to company claims that the plant called 911 immediately. The first call came from a resident wondering about the sirens at the plant, Davis said.
Honeywell called the sheriff’s department’s non-emergency line eight minutes after the first phone call, Davis said.
Henson said Honeywell has hired outside companies to examine plant procedures. He said the NRC will take several weeks to review the results before the plant can resume production of the gas, which is refined into reactor fuel rods elsewhere.
Andrew Coleman, who moved his family to the area two years ago, spoke for many residents suddenly wary of their industrial neighbor.
“I just hope they do the right thing and make sure that everyone’s safe if there is a huge release,” he said.