The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Honeywell reports advances since shutdown by toxic gas

Joe Walker

Friday, October 01, 2004

Since a Dec. 22 toxic gas release that threatened neighboring homes, Honeywell has made extensive improvements and made sure workers know they have authority to stop a job if it is unsafe, plant manager Rory O'Kane said.

"I think there are a number of indicators that show we're a safer, more responsible operation that we were a year ago," he said Thursday during a public meeting led by senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials. Attending were about 20 people, including plant neighbors and community emergency response personnel.

Honeywell has upgraded equipment, procedures, training, emergency systems and virtually all other aspects of the factory, largely through the work of 350 employees whose commitment "speaks volumes," O'Kane said.

The corporation is spending nearly $7.5 million this year on improved technology — the largest expenditure since the 1970s — and will spend more than $10 million next year, O'Kane said.

"This plant is here to stay," he said. "The company is investing these kinds of dollars because (its executives) want the plant to work."

Having hired 35 employees this year, Honeywell expects to increase production of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) by late this year to a level higher than it was before the UF6 release. Despite the increase, the plant recently celebrated a full year without a lost-workday injury and is on pace to have its safest year since the plant opened in 1958, O'Kane said.

A long-term improvement plan will be submitted to the NRC by early next year in advance of the plant's license renewal in June, O'Kane said.

The NRC has repeatedly inspected the plant since the release and noted considerable improvements, said William Travers, Region II administrator. There were no violations in a June inspection and two violations of the lowest severity in August. Another inspection will take place within three months.

Previously, the NRC said Honeywell "took prompt and comprehensive corrective actions, exceeding those actually required" following the release. The plant did not face any civil penalties.

Four people were hospitalized as a result of vapors that escaped from the plant on U.S. 45 North, and more than two dozen others were evacuated from nearby homes. NRC inspectors said Honeywell employees reconfigured the fluorination system without detailed instructions, which caused the leak. Also, the plant failed to implement some parts of its emergency response plan and did not provide sufficient information to local emergency responders.

The plant voluntarily shut down for four months to make improvements, including a greater number of community warning sirens and an automated phone system that in an emergency calls people living within 1.3 miles of the center of the plant notification zone. The system calls nearest residents first and works outward, dialing 250 numbers per minute. Honeywell activates it by dialing an 800 number.