The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Gas leak details still daze citizens
Honeywell and the NRC had a public meeting Tuesday to explain the gas leak of Dec. 22. Many citizens were just as confused when afterward as when they arrived.

By Jimmy Nesbitt The Paducah Sun

METROPOLIS, Ill.--Many of the people who were confused when they were evacuated from their homes in the middle of the night after a toxic gas release two weeks ago at the Honeywell plant left the Massac County Courthouse on Tuesday night just as perplexed.

Plant officials and representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a public meeting in front of a standing-room-only crowd that listened with blank faces and long stares.

When the floor was opened to the public, residents, many of whom live near the plant, asked questions for more than an hour and a half about the Dec. 22 release.

Most seemed satisfied with the details of NRC's investigation, which concluded that the release "had minimal impact on worker or public health and safety."

According to the report, the leak, which was noticed by a foreman at 2:15 a.m., escaped the building when "the (operator) did not place the dust collection valves and the system valves in the correct position."

Another factor, said Jay Henson, NRC chief fuel facility inspector in Atlanta, was that the operator controlling the dust collection valve was working a double shift.

The release, estimated at about seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, rose 86 feet high, and light winds pushed the chemicals northwest, the report said. Although UF6 is mildly radioactive, it is mainly a chemical threat because it emits toxic hydrogen fluoride, or HF, when exposed to moisture in the air, the NRC says.

Tests indicated that levels of uranium in air samples outside the plant were up to 100 times higher than normal but at or below the annual average the NRC uses to determine concentration limits.

Of the four residents who were hospitalized, one showed signs of exposure to low levels of hydrofluoric acid, the report said. The man, who lived about a half-mile from the plant, received precautionary treatment for skin reddening and lung exposure and was released the next day.

Even though only one person was hospitalized, "UF6 gas release is absolutely unacceptable," plant manager Rory O'Kane said. The plant, which converts natural uranium to UF6 for use in producing nuclear energy, will not produce the chemical until its officials and the NRC conclude that it's safe to resume, he said.

Many people, including O'Kane and Keith Davis, 911 director for Massac County, said a breakdown occurred in the communication between Honeywell and the emergency dispatch center after the release. "Communication was not as good as you expected it to be," O'Kane said. "It could have gone better."

Several people in the audience questioned plant officials about their evacuation procedures, claiming they were disorganized. Davis said the first call about the release came from a resident. Eight minutes later, an official from Honeywell called and said there was "a major leak, and we need to evacuate."

"That was the extent of the call ... there are some issues there with 911 and what's expected out of them," Davis said.

He said there needs to be better coordination between the plant and emergency officials in planning for evacuations. "There's plenty of room for improvement all the way around," he said.

O'Kane said: "There are certainly some questions about the effectiveness of the plan. We have a plan. It didn't execute flawlessly. There are areas to improve."

The NRC conducted the investigation because the leak was the plant's fourth since September. An earlier review of the three previous leaks determined that the company had taken sufficient corrective action.

Many people who lived near the plant admitted they didn't know much about the chemicals at the plant or which ones are harmful when released. Dr. Drew Coleman, 38, of Mill Springs questioned plant and NRC officials for more than eight minutes and was the most outspoken critic of the plant's practices.

Coleman, a doctor at Western Baptist Hospital with a background in chemistry, said people who don't have that background won't understand what effects the chemicals can have on them.

"What they're (plant officials) counting on," he said, "is that the majority of the population" doesn't understand what's going on.