Fluoride Action Network

Uranium hexafluoride: Radioactive scare at north-end container terminal

Source: The Chronicle Herald | March 13th, 2014 | By Davene Jeffery, Staff Reporter
Location: Canada, Nova Scotia
Industry type: Nuclear Industry

Uranium hexafluoride (UF6):
Emergency crews were on high alert Thursday night as it was feared a container of nuclear material was leaking aboard a ship at Halifax’s north-end Ceres terminal.

A hazmat team was called in at about 9:45 p.m. when a possible spill was reported at the Bayne Street terminal.

“We have a leak, I’ve got to go,” Halifax Fire and Emergency Service Division Commander Corey Beals said during an telephone interview.

“A container fell and it could possibly have some type of nuclear material in it,” Beals had said earlier.

“We have a hazmat team on scene right now and we have meters and equipment to go and meter the area to determine whether we do in fact have a leak or to rule it out,” Beals said.

Later, the Halifax Fire Department confirmed that four cylinders containing uranium hexafluoride fell from a container, but there was no leak of radioactive material.

The fire department also said no one had been injured or contaminated as a result of the incident.

Emergency officials were not expecting to have to evacuate anyone.

It is believed the container was being loaded onto the deck of the Swedish-built Atlantic Companion when it dropped.

The ship is owned by the Atlantic Container Line (ACL).

Uranium hexafluoride is used to provide fuel for nuclear power and in nuclear weapons.

According to a website operated by URENCO, a  nuclear fuel supplier, thousands of tonnes of uranium hexafluoride are shipped around the world annually.

Two teams of firefighters were being sent onto the ship to test for radioactivity levels. The first team found nothing unusual, Beals said.

However, the second team picked up higher than normal levels of radioactivity.

There were unconfirmed reports the levels detected were three times normal.

There were also reports that the Halifax Harbour Master had been alerted that there was a ship in the harbour leaking radioactive material.

Halifax fire cleared workers from the area of the ship and established three zones — a cold zone or safe zone, a warm zone where the command post had been established and a hot zone closer to the container where only the hazmat team was allowed to go.

The wife of a worker at the Ceres terminal tweeted late Thursday night that her husband was on scene when the container fell and that he has been quarantined.

This isn’t the first time a container of uranium hexafluoride has been dropped in Halifax.

In July 1999, in a very similar accident happened at Halterm in Halifax’s south end when a container dropped onto another ACL ship the Atlantic Conveyor.

However, that time there were no leaks.

Uranium hexafluoride that contacts water or moisture in the air will decompose to form a cloud of toxic fumes.

If a container carrying the chemical were to leak, it could prove fatal.

According to a U.S. Department of Energy website, uranium hexafluoride at ambient conditions “is a volatile, white, crystalline solid.” It changes to a liquid or a gas depending on how much heat is applied.

The U.S department estimates it has 675,000 metric tonnes of the depleted chemical stored in 56,000 cylinders.