Fluoride Action Network

NRC downplays threat from nuclear material missing in South Carolina

Source: The Institute for Southern Studies | July 7th, 2008
Industry type: Nuclear Industry

This Wednesday, July 9, staff with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a meeting in Atlanta with officials from the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuels Plant in Columbia, S.C. to discuss nuclear materials that went missing back in February. The meeting will be open to the public for observation.

On Feb. 11, personnel at the Westinghouse plant — the largest nuclear fuel facility in the United States — discovered they had lost 16 sample vials of uranium hexafluoride or UF6 that had been delivered a week earlier. They searched the plant as well as a scrap metal recycling facility in Columbia, a metal shredding facility in Spartanburg and a landfill in Elgin but were unable to locate the material or detect radioactivity at the sites.

A white crystalline material that resembles rock salt, UF6 is used in the process of enriching uranium for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

This week’s meeting is what NRC calls a “predecisional enforcement conference” to discuss apparent violations of NRC regulations. Those violations include the failure to follow proper custody procedures for licensed material, to prevent unauthorized removal of licensed material from a controlled area, and to read and sign procedures for handling and disposal of shipping containers.

The NRC’s press release about the meeting points out that the missing material presents a low radiation threat. The vials contained a total of about 4.5 ounces of low-enriched uranium, which gives off about the same amount of radiation that someone would be exposed to while flying from New York to London.

But Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells Facing South that the NRC does not address the more serious hazard presented by UF6. When the material comes into contact with water — including moisture in humid air — it creates deadly hydrofluoric acid. In 1986, for example, a worker at the Sequoyah Fuels plant in Oklahoma was killed when a UF6-filled cylinder ruptured and he inhaled the resulting hydrofluoric acid.

Says Lochbaum:

The NRC is seeking to downplay the threat by focusing on the less serious problem — radioactivity. The toxicity of UF6 is the primary threat.

If the NRC looked into a drive-by shooting, they’d focus on the speed of the vehicle vice the posted speed limit rather than the little metal slugs emitted at high speed from the windows.Wednesday’s meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. in Suite 23T85 of the Sam Nunn Federal Center. NRC officials will be available afterward to answer questions from interested parties.

— posted by Sue Sturgis