Posted by: Kevin | July 8, 2008

From the Department of Bad News

From Facing South:

On Feb. 11, personnel at the Westinghouse plant — the largest nuclear fuel facility in the United States — discovered they had lost 16 sample vials of uranium hexafluoride or UF6 that had been delivered a week earlier.

What is really interesting about this story isn’t so much that nuclear fuel has gone missing (which still sucks) but how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chose to comment on it.  They focus on the investigation being conducted and the controls being implemented and how the radioactivity doesn’t pose a threat to public safety.

The vials contained a total of about 4.5 ounces of low-enriched uranium calculated to contain approximately 409.4 microcuries of radioactivity, which translates to a calculated maximum radiation dose of five millirem per year, or the amount of radiation one person would receive by taking a one-way flight from New York to London.

So there’s no problem right?  Um…no.  What the NRC failed to mention, is that when the material in question (UF6) is exposed to water it generates HydroFlouric Acid which is a deadly poison.

When the material comes into contact with water — including moisture in humid air — it creates deadly hydrofluoric acid. In 1986, for example, a worker at the Sequoyah Fuels plant in Oklahoma was killed when a UF6-filled cylinder ruptured and he inhaled the resulting hydrofluoric acid.

From Wikipedia:

HF interferes with nerve function and burns may not initially be painful. Accidental exposures can go unnoticed, delaying treatment and increasing the extent and seriousness of the injury.  Death can occur if as little as 2.5% of total body surface area is exposed to concentrated HF.

There isn’t enough material missing to say, poison the water supply, but is it too much to mention in the article that the material in question is in fact dangerous?  I don’t think there is any malicious intent in this omission, but I’m irritated that the report from the NRC would fail to mention a fact that I learned in high school chem class.

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