Danville Register & Bee
Published: July 20, 2009
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent a special inspection team to investigate how radioactive material ended up in an oil receptacle at Babcock & Wilcox last week.
The inspection will help NRC officials decide whether B&W should be fined for the July 15 incident, when some weapons-grade uranium was found outside its normal controls that ensure it will not accumulate and cause a criticality, or a strong burst of radiation.
There was not enough uranium to cause an explosion, but the NRC is concerned that the material got out of its proper safety controls.
“The event that happened on July 15 was serious enough to prompt us to want to get in there and look at the processes” the company uses, said NRC spokesman Joey Ledford.
The incident began when a B&W employee noticed what appeared to be a kind of metal in a container of oil. The oil had been used in a saw that cuts nuclear fuel components.
When the metal turned out to be uranium, the company notified the NRC, which then declared an alert, which is its lowest emergency declaration. The alert was cleared five hours later when B&W confirmed that there was not enough uranium to cause danger.
The NRC began considering whether to call for a special inspection. Ledford said that four inspectors were scheduled to arrive in Lynchburg on Monday.
Special inspections are not uncommon, Ledford said. The commission probably has dozens of them each year, he said, although he did not have an exact number. They are prompted by events that make officials concerned about the plants handle nuclear materials.
The four-person inspection team plans to be on site at B&W’s Mt. Athos Road facility for about one week. “They’re likely to leave the inspection open until after B&W concludes its own investigation (into) the root cause,” Ledford said. “Going through that with a fine tooth comb is part of the special inspection.”
B&W spokeswoman Carla Parks said in an e-mail last week that B&W is performing a thorough investigation to identify the cause of the incident and to decide how to prevent it from happening again.
After the NRC closes its special inspection, it will release a public report on the incident within 45 days.