November 4, 1999
Disposal violation at plant prompts USEC reminder
By Bill Bartleman
Four weeks after the United States Enrichment Corporation reminded its employees about rules regarding access to material storage areas inside the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, workers violated those rules by placing unauthorized waste in a storage area that now may be contaminated with fissionable material.
The incident, which happened Monday, is being investigated by several agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. An NRC spokesman said USEC could be cited for a violation, which would be its 105th since NRC began regulating USEC operations in March 1997.
The latest matter, which was discovered and reported by USEC supervisors at 10 a.m. Tuesday, did not create a hazard for employees or the community but was a violation of rules intended to protect the plant from a serious nuclear accident, called a criticality accident.
USEC manages the uranium enrichment production facilities at the plant.
"This was not serious from a safety standpoint, but it was serious because we don't tolerate people violating procedures," USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said by phone from headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
The U.S. Department of Energy has 148 material storage areas at the plant where equipment and containers are stored that may contain enriched uranium that, if mishandled, could cause a criticality accident.
Strict procedures require that no materials be added or removed from those areas without the written approval from DOE or Bechtel Jacobs Co., the company hired by DOE to manage the plant's legacy waste program.
On Monday, electricians repaired and replaced light ballasts in the C-400 building and, without authorization, disposed of the old ballasts in a material storage area inside the building. The ballasts are a hazard because they contain PCBs, a known carcinogen.
Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, said the storage area in question is at a low risk for a criticality accident. He said it is considered a criticality risk because of the potential for the presence of enriched uranium.
Stuckle said an investigation has begun to determine why and how the violation occurred.
"The area was properly marked with signs noting that entry required permission of the shift supervisor and with references to the procedures that must be followed to place material in the area," Stuckle said. "It simply was a personnel error."
Stuckle said she didn't know how many workers were in the area at the time of the violation but all were trained in safety procedures. She said they also were among those who received a memorandum Sept. 30 reminding them of the proper procedures when seeking access to the waste storage areas.
Cook said the incident concerns Bechtel Jacobs because of the Sept. 30 memorandum and the findings of a recent DOE investigation of safety conditions at the plant.
The employee memo said: "Never add or remove items from a ... (DOE storage area) without written permission from DOE/Bechtel Jacobs."
Cook said USEC is expected to come up with a new plan for notifying its employees of the rules and seeing they are followed.
Stuckle said it was too early to predict what will happen to the employees who violated the rules. She said it could range from retraining on the procedures to disciplinary action.
The incident comes at a time when there is a heightened awareness and concern for safety at the plant where uranium is enriched for use as a nuclear fuel.
The USEC memo was issued after a special DOE investigative team found that procedures related to access of the controlled storage areas were being violated and that warning signs were not properly maintained. Those concerns were expressed to USEC management in a Sept. 20 letter, which was the reason USEC sent a memo to its employees.
The DOE investigative team was sent to Paducah from Washington by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson because of recent allegations in two lawsuits that contamination at the plant is worse than previous reports indicate, and that working conditions may not be safe.
The first phase of the investigation looked into existing safety conditions and waste generated since 1990. One of the major concerns raised by the investigators was the lack of oversight of rules related to me material storage areas because of the potential of a criticality accident.
Overall the investigative team said the plant was safe for employees and the nearby neighbors.
The second phase of the investigation involves plant operations and environmental waste generated from the time the plant opened in 1952 until 1990. That report is expected to be issued early next year.
Cook said the light ballasts have not been removed from the storage area because they are now a part of the hazardous material. He said technicians will investigate and prepare a plan for its possible removal.
"They aren't causing a hazard, so we left them where they are," he said. "If they were removed without the proper analysis, it would be another violation of the rules."