Two workers contaminated after spill at NFS

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Two workers at Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin were contaminated earlier this week during a spill at the uranium fuel fabrication facility.
   According to the "Event Notification" report filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NFS reported a liquid spill which resulted when a column broke.
   According to Ken Clark of the NRC's Region II office in Atlanta, at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, a process column containing highly concentrated uranium in solution leaked approximately 50 liters to the process area floor.
   "During the initial leak, an operator came into contact with the material. Initial skin contamination was estimated at about 100,000 disintegrations per minute per cubic centimeter square. In third-grade language, that is not a lot. You would have to ingest the material before it would present a health hazard. According to all of the reports we have from our resident inspector, the material was not ingested," Clark said.
   The individual was decontaminated and the area quarantined so that the spill could be cleaned up.
   "During the cleaning operation, one of the cleaning personnel apparently fainted and had some slight contamination when she fell back into some equipment. She was revived and decontaminated and complained of back pain and was sent to the hospital," Clark said.
   NFS health physics personnel and nuclear criticality safety engineers supervised the cleanup.
   Clark said he was not at liberty to provide much information about the accident because "I'm told this is a classified area and they have not described it to me, and I am not to describe it."
   As a producer of fuel for the U.S. Navy, "A lot of that process is classified," Clark said. "They won't even tell me."
   He did say, however, that the floor in the area where the spill occurred "is shaped so that if there is a leak, the material spreads out on the floor in a geometry ... such that it does not present a problem in the area.
   "It would not be a criticality problem. There are no unsafe geometry containers or floor drains in the area of the spill for the material to collect in," he said.
   NFS is assessing the cause of the leak, according to Clark, and will be able to collect 99 percent of the material that leaked from the column.
   Though the event report stated that a column broke, Clark said he believed what actually occurred was that either a seal failed or there was a crack in the flange on the process column, "but we do not know yet."
   The NRC has a resident inspector stationed at NFS, however, Clark said, the inspector is on leave this week and was unable to provide further information.
   "There is a person from headquarters there, who was not there because of this spill, but was there on a routine material control and accountability inspection. He is looking into what the licensee [NFS] is doing."
   Clark was unable to provide further information about the two workers who were contaminated or exactly what type of material was leaked.
   "It was radioactive material, but, again, it's classified, so I don't have that information. The material they handle there is unradiated. It has never gone through the fission process so it is not highly radioactive," he said.