The Columbus Dispatch

Nuclear panel: Safety devices slowed plant fire

Because of the severe damage, officials have not determined how the fire started.

By Bob Dreitzler
Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch Staff Reporter
February 6, 1999

PIKETON, Ohio -- A fire at a uranium fuel processing plant was "about as bad as it could be for that type of situation,'' a federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission official said yesterday.

The fire began shortly after 6 a.m. on Dec. 9 in a large building at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where uranium is enriched for use as fuel for nuclear reactors.

For nearly two hours, the fire melted and burned metal piping in uranium processing equipment and buckled metal girders in an area about 100 feet by 30 feet.

The blaze "could not have been any more serious,'' said James Caldwell, a deputy regional administrator for the NRC, but safety features incorporated when the plant was designed nearly a half-century ago helped firefighters contain the blaze.

The building is constructed of cells equipped with sprinklers and separated by secure walls, which kept the fire from spreading.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries when they slipped in some of the 3,000 gallons of lubricating and hydraulic oil that was released during the blaze.

The oil also caught fire and some leaked from the cell where the blaze originated into adjacent areas, but was quickly contained.

Some uranium hexafluoride was released inside the building, but none escaped outside, officials said. No one was exposed to radiation or chemical contamination, they said.

Because of the severe damage, officials have not determined how the fire started. But they know it was fueled by a reaction between molten aluminum and the gaseous uranium hexafluoride that is used in the enrichment process.

The fire was like a continuously burning torch, said Patrick Hiland, chief of the NRC's fuel facilities branch. "It was a tremendously hot fire.''

Caldwell and Hiland are part of an NRC inspection team formed to investigate the fire.

The team included specialists from the agency's headquarters and regional office personnel.

The team met yesterday with plant officials to review their findings.

About 100 people attended the presentation at Ohio State University's Piketon Research and Extension Center, which is adjacent to the enrichment plant complex.

The federal team found that the emergency response to the fire was adequate but identified problems in areas of planning, training and operations.

Among the findings, they said, was inadequate emergency breathing equipment in the area where the fire occurred, which resulted in two workers suffering smoke inhalation.

Firefighters tried to supplement fogging equipment with foam spray but their foaming equipment would not work.

And notices that should have gone out immediately to state and local agencies and the NRC were delayed.

The NRC's written report detailing all its findings will be issued in about a week.

Corrective actions already were being taken on some items before the NRC investigators discovered them, federal officials said.

They concluded that such a fire could occur again, but that if it did the consequences would be within regulatory limits.

Another phase of the investigation beginning in March will determine whether any fines or penalties should be assessed against Lockheed Martin Utility Services, the company that operates the plant for the United States Enrichment Corp. under a contract that is being phased out.

Morris Brown, plant general manager, told the NRC team that he found its report to be comprehensive and accurate.

"We appreciate that you noted the positive aspects as well as where we need to improve,'' he said.

He said no discipline or reprimands were issued as a result of the fire.

"But there were some expectations issued,'' he said. "We are handling it as a lesson learned.''