CHICAGO– A more serious incident occurred at the Honeywell Uranium conversion facility in Metropolis, Illinois than was originally reported by the plant operators to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC Event Report states,
“DISCOVERY OF AFTER-THE-FACT EMERGENCY CONDITION – ALERT DECLARATION NOT MADE DURING EVENT INVOLVING URANIUM HEXAFLUORIDE LEAK After review of additional observations and other evidence not directly involved with the response, Honeywell has determined that the event should have been upgraded at 1942 [CDT] on 10/26/14, to an ‘Alert’ classification per our classification criteria.”
“Emergency response and public awareness to a hazardous release from Honeywell depends on the reliable, honest and timely reporting by Honeywell. No government agencies can detect in real time an ongoing release of radioactive Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) or toxic Hydrogen Fluoride (HF) at the facility”, stated Gail Snyder, Board President of Nuclear Energy Information Service.
In a phone conversation with Roger Hanah of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) he conveyed that Honeywell’s Emergency Response Plan includes stationing a person in position to view and observe the incident and that the person was not originally stationed in a location that allowed him/her to see the release of Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) from the building. An updated NRC Event Report states “the NRC inspection found that Honeywell did not recognize that the HF (Hydrogen Fluoride) released from the FMB (Facilities Management Building) warranted an emergency classification of ALERT. “ As a result Honeywell did not notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at that time. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency which issues the site permit and regulates the process where the leak occurred was not notified of the incident until a few days after it happened.
Currently the production of Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) is shutdown at the facility while an internal investigation and corrective actions are evaluated and discussed with the NRC. In a confirmatory action letter resulting from an NRC emergency inspection, Honeywell is required to “review and revise [their] emergency preparedness procedures, if necessary, and conduct appropriate training to provide assurance that events can be classified correctly, and appropriate emergency response actions can be implemented.” From this wording it does not indicate if Honeywell’s failure to accurately understand and convey the seriousness of the incident was a failure of their Emergency Response Plan or insufficiently trained or inexperienced workers.
On-strike union workers have claimed that replacement workers are not well trained and do not have the experience to operate the facility as safely as union workers would.
“The NRC has previously approved the Emergency Response Plan and allowed the facility to operate with replacement workers. So will the NRC undergo its own internal investigation to determine how the NRC allowed either plans, less qualified workers or some combination of those to operate the facility in a way that would allow for a plume of Uranium Hexafluoride or Hydrogen Fluoride to be released, not noticed, not accurately categorized and delayed in reporting?” asks Gail Snyder.
The Honeywell facility does not have a ten-mile Emergency Planning Zone around it like nuclear energy facilities do which require some preparedness information be provided to the public on what to do in the event of an emergency. Joe Miller from Massac County’s Emergency Management department said, “the sirens that are activated offsite during an emergency may not always be heard by people who are inside a residence or building,” where other sounds from televisions, radios etc…may not allow them to hear the sirens. Emergency Management Director for the City of Metropolis, Keith Davis, who is also the director for the 911 service of the county, said that during an emergency Honeywell determines the severity and classification of an event as well as the action recommendations which are then directed to dispatch. Prompt public notification of an emergency can come in the form of sirens and reverse 911 calls or through the emergency alert system. The original reporting from Honeywell or its revised status of an “alert” would not have initiated public notifications. If the status was raised to a “Site Area Emergency” that would indicate the possible offsite release of Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) and/or Hydrogen Fluoride (HF) which would initiate public notifications.
On October 26, 2014 Honeywell reported a leak of Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) claiming the leak was contained within the building, later admitting that the leak was not contained in the building and was released into the environment while still claiming it did not go offsite of the facility. A union worker on strike outside the facility filmed the plume coming out of the top of the building and drifting across the property before water suppression systems were activated. Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) states that their department’s radiation monitoring equipment stationed outside the facility’s fence boundary did not monitor anything unusual. The other dangerously toxic chemical, Hydrogen Fluoride Gas (HF), which could be a significant risk to the neighboring community is not monitored by IEMA.
The first NRC “updated” Preliminary report, dated October 31st, maintains the “Not Applicable” classification rather than the “Alert” classification. It also states “initial indications are that no detectable offsite release of material (UF6 or HF) was present,” and that “monitoring fence HF detectors from the control room indicated no detectable HF at the fence.” The Honeywell facility has Hydrogen Fluoride detectors on site but according to an article posted by the United Steel Workers, who are in a labor dispute with Honeywell and have been locked out of the facility for over three months, HF monitors are not stationed on the West side of the property’s fence line, the direction the plume was going. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff member confirmed that it was likely that HF monitors were not stationed along the fence line in areas where people did not live. The west side of the Honeywell facility is bordered by a forested area. A coal facility is just beyond the forested area. The only agency that might monitor for Hydrogen Fluoride is the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). Attempts to contact the IEPA to confirm that they do not monitor for Hydrogen Fluoride at the facility could not be obtained by the time of this press release.
The most recent NRC “updated” Preliminary report, dated November 6th, states that “The NRC has concluded no detectable radioactive material was released,” and that “Honeywell has determined that if any HF, which is not radioactive but is chemically hazardous, travelled beyond their property it would have been of such a low concentration as to pose no public safety hazard.” From October 31st to November 6th Honeywell changed its statement from “initial indications…no detectable offsite release” to “if any HF travelled beyond property.” Currently there is no confirmation that HF absolutely did not leave the site because there are not monitors around the entire site, and we have found no other governmental agency that monitors HF at the site. Other than direct monitoring of HF, determination of whether HF went beyond the property is done through computer modeling. The Honeywell Company and the NRC have both run modeling programs to determine the quantity of material released. The results of the modeling may be available in the report issued by the NRC from the emergency inspection of the facility which will be finalized and available in a few weeks.
The NRC’s Event reporting form has five “License Emergency Classifications.” Uranium Processing facilities have two allowed classifications of emergencies, “Alert” and “Site Area Emergency,” according to Roger Hanah of the NRC. The original Preliminary Event report form had the “Not Applicable” box selected. Honeywell originally referred to the emergency as a “plant emergency” which does not alert the heads of emergency response agencies to the potential for offsite releases or that they he should be prepared to potentially have to call staff in if Honeywell requires outside assistance. An “Alert” level would have raised the awareness and preparedness of the various emergency response agencies. No outside response was requested.
Honeywell submitted an additional event report on or around November 3rd, after the original incident and during the shutdown of the production of Uranium Hexafluoride Honeywell that reported the “UNPLANNED MEDICAL TREATMENT OF A CONTAMINATED INDIVIDUAL.” The employee slipped and fell in a gravel area: “A whole body radiological survey of the employee and plant clothing was performed,” contamination was present with the most occurring on the upper back of the employee’s plant issued coveralls. Upon the completion of first aid activities, the employee routinely exit monitored from the facility and reported to an off-site medical facility for further evaluation. No additional contamination found on the employee.” It could not be determined from the report or questions to the NRC if the employee was injured or contaminated in relation to repair or clean-up work from the event on October 26th. The inspection report related to the Oct. 26th event or other regular inspection reports in the future may convey more information about the contaminated employee.
“The staggering number of mistakes, inaccuracies, changed stories, and inadequate responses on the part of both Honeywell and the NRC beg for an independent investigation into Honeywell’s ability to run so sensitive a facility, and NRC’s ability to adequately regulate it,” asserts Dave Kraft, Director of NEIS. “NRC’s existing regulatory scheme does not seem capable of protecting the public health and safety in a timely and responsible manner. Illinois’ Congressional Delegation needs to look into this matter,” Kraft states.