Monday, August 3, 2009

Drunk Driver Caused Accident Involving Radioactive Cargo, Police Say

More about the truck accident in WV. The uranium hexfluoride being carried by the tractor trailer could have caused serious damage had the tank been breached. The emphasis on the description of U hexfluoride is mine; the link to the Argonne National Laboratory is in the original article.

August 2, 2009

SUMMERS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The entire Town of Sandstone and surrounding areas were evacuated after a tractor trailer carrying radioactive material caught fire, but tests have confirmed that there is no danger.

It happened at midnight Sunday morning on I-64 at the 139 mile marker, which is near the Sandstone exit in Summers County.

A news release from the West Virginia State Police says the driver of a pickup truck headed west on I-64 was drunk when he ran off the road and struck a guardrail, causing his truck to roll over through the median, landing in the shoulder of the east bound lanes. The driver of the tractor trailer was headed east and locked up his brakes to avoid the debris from the pickup truck that was left in the road. The tractor trailer then veered to the right and hit a rock embankment, overturned and caught fire.

The tractor trailer was carrying a corrosive material that has been determined to be radioactive.

Just before 3:30 a.m., HAZMAT crews reached the scene and determined that the container holding the material was not damaged and none of the material leaked. The crews also tested the air around the wreck and found no contamination.

A 911 dispatcher says the evacuation of the town was a precaution at the time, and residents are now allowed to return to their homes.

Cpl. Z.M. Duke with the Hinton Detachment of the West Virginia State Police tells that the chemical inside the truck was Uranium hexafluoride. He says it was a large container holding 32,000 pounds of the material. The truck was headed to Portsmouth, Virginia, for export. It was not known from where the truck was coming.

According to a Web site run by the Argonne National Laboratory, Uranium hexfluoride (UF6) is the chemical form of uranium that is used during the uranium enrichment process.

Here is information from the Web site about how the chemical reacts with air and water:

    Uranium hexafluoride does not react with oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or dry air, but it does react with water or water vapor. For this reason, UF6 is always handled in leak tight containers and processing equipment. When UF6 comes into contact with water, such as water vapor in the air, the UF6 and water react, forming corrosive hydrogen fluoride (HF) and a uranium-fluoride compound called uranyl fluoride (UO2F2).

Here are the health dangers of UF6, according to the same site:

    In addition, if UF6 is released to the atmosphere, the uranium compounds and HF that are formed by reaction with moisture in the air can be chemically toxic. Uranium is a heavy metal that, in addition to being radioactive, can have toxic chemical effects (primarily on the kidneys) if it enters the bloodstream by means of ingestion or inhalation. HF is an extremely corrosive gas that can damage the lungs and cause death if inhaled at high enough concentrations.

Duke says about 100 people left their homes and went to Summers County Middle School during the precautionary evacuation period, and that process went relatively smoothly.

The truck driver was not seriously hurt. He was taken to the hospital and later and returned to the scene, according to the 911 dispatcher. The driver of the pickup truck was also not seriously hurt, but was cited for driving under the influence. No names have been released yet.

I-64 east was shut down in the area most of the day Sunday, but was re-opened at about 6:54 p.m. I-64 west and Route 20 in the area of the accident were also closed for hours, but were re-open earlier in the day.

Emergency crews from Raleigh and Kanawha counties responded to assist with the situation.

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