A tractor-trailer hauling radioactive materials wrecked and caught fire Sunday, forcing mass evacuations and the shutdown of part of Interstate 64 for about 17 hours, according to authorities.
Despite the truck’s total destruction, authorities say the hazardous material did not leak.
Around midnight Sunday, an eastbound tractor-trailer and another vehicle wrecked just past the I-64 Sandstone exit in Summers County, said Capt. Joe Coughlin of the Beckley Fire Department. The tractor-trailer flipped onto its side and caught fire.
Nine minutes after midnight, Summers County authorities confirmed the truck was hauling radioactive/corrosive material and requested the interstate be shut down, Coughlin said.
State troopers said the truck was carrying a container with about 32,000 pounds of uranium hexafluoride, a radioactive chemical compound. According to information from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is a chemical used in the uranium enrichment process.
UF6 can be toxic if released into the atmosphere, according to information from the Argonne laboratory. If it enters a person’s bloodstream by ingestion or inhalation, it can have toxic chemical effects, primarily on the kidneys.
When UF6 comes in contact with water or water vapor in the air, this forms a corrosive compound called hydrogen fluoride (HF). HF is an extremely corrosive gas that can damage the lungs and cause death if inhaled at high concentrations.
Around 12:30 a.m., the state’s regional response team, which has a truck housed and maintained at the Beckley Fire Department, was called to the scene, Coughlin said. The regional response team truck’s contents include decontamination and hazardous material monitoring equipment.
Response team members examined the container hauling the UF6, and they determined it was still intact and not leaking, Coughlin said. The truck was completely destroyed.
“The cargo did not become a hazard, but it was close to it,” he said. “It could have been really, really ugly. Fortunately, (the tankers are) made to survive crashes.”
After the container was found undamaged, about 100 residents in and around Sandstone forced to evacuate were allowed to go home. Evacuees were housed at Summers County Middle School.
Dispatchers said no one was seriously injured in the wreck.
Part of I-64 remained closed until 5 p.m. Sunday. Coughlin said responders also had to wait three to four hours for a special truck and special crane large enough to haul away the burned truck and the UF6 container. Both had to come from outside the region. The crane’s origin was unknown, but the truck came from Kentucky.
The wrecked truck’s origin and destination were both unknown.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.