By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
By the end of the week, Honeywell International expects to resume uranium hexafluoride (UF6) production for the first time since a Dec. 22 toxic gas release that threatened neighbors of the plant on U.S. 45 North.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission told plant officials Wednesday morning they may resume making uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), or greensalt, the second stage of the three-stage process of manufacturing UF6. Plant Manager Rory O'Kane said greensalt production probably would be under way by the end of the day and he hoped to get NRC approval Friday to resume fluorination, the final stage.
"So by the end of this weekend, we would expect to be in full production of UF6 and about the middle of next week actually start filling cylinders," he said.
Honeywell makes raw-product UF6 that other plants enrich, or raise the radioactivity level, for use in nuclear fuel. On March 27, the NRC authorized Honeywell to resume first-stage ore preparation. The agency said Wednesday that based on reviewing corrective actions and observing work, it was safe for the plant to restart greensalt production.
The NRC has scheduled another public meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the second-floor large courtroom of the Massac County Courthouse. The agency said a decision on restarting production may be made before the meeting.
Despite the four-month UF6 shutdown, the plant continued to make other specialty chemicals and there were no layoffs. Honeywell actually has added 40 workers to raise employment to 350, O'Kane said. "Before Dec. 22, we were projecting business to go through a significant growth spurt," O'Kane said. "We're still expecting, once we're up and running, to pretty much sell everything we can make."
The shutdown followed the release of seven pounds of UF6 gas, mildly radioactive but highly caustic. Four people were hospitalized, and more than two dozen others were evacuated from nearby homes. Honeywell is still trying to rebuild the trust lost because of the scare.
During two previous public meetings, residents expressed concern about the chemical and problems with a community warning system. Sirens have been added, as well as an automated phone system that in an emergency calls people living within 1.3 miles of the center of the plant notification zone. Dialing 250 numbers per minute, the system calls nearest residents first, working outward. Honeywell activates it by dialing an 800 number. After recent tests, some neighbors complained they couldn't hear the sirens while indoors. O'Kane explained Wednesday that the sirens are designed to warn people outdoors to take shelter. Those who couldn't hear the sound indoors live on the fringe of the sirens' range of 1 miles from the plant, and the phone system is designed to take care of those people, he said.
"Based on our tests and tests done by the community awareness council, we believe the tests were adequate and sufficient."