Four People Hospitalized Following Uranium Leak in Illinois

* Four residents of Metropolis, Illinois were hospitalized recently following an accidental release of uranium hexafluoride into the air by the Honeywell uranium conversion plant, which manufactures uranium hexafluoride gas. Tests indicate that uranium levels in air samples surrounding the plant were up to 100 times higher than normal. Following investigation of the accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said that the release had "minimal impact on worker or public health and safety."

According to NRC, the release occurred after a worker at the plant neglected to place collection valves in the correct position. The mistake caused the release of approximately seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride to the air, which rose 86 feet before winds pushed the chemicals to the northwest. Of the four people hospitalized, one showed signs of exposure to toxic hydrofluoric acid.

Rory O'Kane, manager of Honeywell, said, "[A Uranium hexafluoride] gas release is absolutely unacceptable." O'Kane said that Honeywell will not produce the chemical until NRC says that it is safe to resume production. He also said that better communication between Honeywell and local emergency response teams is necessary for the next accident. An emergency response team representative agreed, saying, "There are some issues there with 911 and what's expected out of them."

Honeywell is the only operational uranium conversion plant in the U.S. and is expected to supply the proposed uranium enrichment facility in Lea County, New Mexico with uranium hexafluoride. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) recently submitted a license application to NRC for a facility to be located near Hobbs.

The facility would use centrifugal force to separate the uranium into its component isotopes. The resultant uranium-235, or enriched uranium, would be used to fuel commercial nuclear reactors. The remaining uranium-238, or depleted uranium, would be waste.

The recent Honeywell accident raises concerns to those in New Mexico regarding the LES facility. Southeastern New Mexico is plagued by heavy winds that have been shown to carry particulates as far as Wisconsin, which could prove disastrous in case of airborne releases.

Furthermore, residents of the Hobbs and Eunice area have already voiced concerns about the local emergency response system. As one resident pointed out, there is currently only one hospital in Lea County, which spans nearly 4,400 square miles. Some worry that it may be insufficient to care for those affected in case of a radiological emergency.

Additionally, activists are concerned about the hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste that the facility would generate. There is currently no facility in which to dispose of this waste and it would remain on-site for at least the lifetime of the facility, if not indefinitely, which could pose a threat to security and the environment.

LES's license application proposes storing the waste at an abandoned uranium mine in Colorado that is managed by Cotter Corporation. However, Richard Cherry, president of Cotter, said that LES has not approached them about the waste, but that such a deal would be unlikely. Cherry said, "That's not something we're interested in. We're not licensed to do that."

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