Residents near he Honeywell plant are evacuated after the leak.
By C.D. Bradley email@example.com
When Benito Bajuyo was startled awake by a knock on his door Monday, he noted that the clock read 3:28 a.m.
Bajuyo and his wife, Barbara, were among more than 20 people evacuated after a toxic-gas leak at the Honeywell nuclear fuel processing plant less than a mile to the south.
"It scared the heck out of me," Bajuyo said of the unexpected wake-up call. "The way the wind was blowing, we were right in the path of it, so we decided to drive south. We decided we might as well go to Paducah, and my wife said we might as well go to Wal-Mart. It was the only place open."
So the Bajuyos and a neighbor who tagged along got some unscheduled Christmas shopping done while plant workers attempted to contain a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) leak. UF6 is a potentially hazardous chemical containing low levels of radioactivity. Honeywell converts natural uranium to UF6 for use in producing nuclear energy.
A preliminary test showed that radioactivity levels outside the plant remained within regulated levels, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Ken Clark said, adding that tests would continue.
Four area residents were taken to Massac Memorial Hospital — two were treated and released, and two others remained for evaluation, according to the plant and the NRC. No specific information was available about the patients or their conditions from either source or the hospital. No one at the plant was injured, Honeywell spokesman Mark McPhee said.
Besides the roughly two dozen evacuated, about 75 were told to stay in their homes for a little more than an hour, Massac County Chief Deputy Sheriff Ted Holder said.
An alarm indicated a UF6 release from a valve in one of the plant's chemical process lines at 2:24 a.m., according to the NRC. McPhee said the release appeared to be caused by human error or malfunctioning equipment, but the investigation continued, and "we don't want to speculate," he said. About 50 of the plant's 315 employees were working when the leak happened.
The release was stopped at 3:20 a.m. Honeywell declared a site area emergency at 3 a.m.
Holder said his office was notified around 2:30 a.m. and evacuations began, with the assistance of the county fire department, around 3 a.m. Officials used loudspeakers and knocked on doors of houses within a mile of the plant, closing U.S. 45 between the city and Joppa Road as well as stopping southbound traffic on Country Club Road. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train was also delayed.
Around 4 a.m., Honeywell told the sheriff's office to keep people inside, and the all-clear for residents came a little more than 30 minutes later, Holder said. The site emergency at the plant ended at 6:50 a.m.
Urinalyses on plant workers on duty at the time were taken to help determine a level of exposure, McPhee said, but "the process is done over a period of days. ... It'll take four to five days to catch all the workers and do all the necessary testing."
The NRC's resident inspector at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant went to Honeywell to monitor operations. Two NRC inspectors were en route from Atlanta, and NRC officials in Washington and Atlanta were monitoring the company's recovery actions. The plant will not reopen without NRC approval, which was not expected before today.
The release was the fourth in the past four months, following three in September. Two releases — of hydrogen fluoride Sept. 9 and UF6 Sept. 30 — were contained in the plant. Antimony pentafluoride, not related to the uranium process, was released outside the plant Sept. 12. An NRC inspection afterward determined the plant had taken sufficiently corrected the problem.