Truck Carrying Uranium Hexafluoride Crashes in West Virginia

August 21, 2009

On Saturday, August 1, a pickup truck crashed on Interstate 64 in West Virginia, covering the road with debris that led to the crash of a tractor trailer carrying 33,000 pounds of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.

David Fischer, 48, was driving the load of UF6, encased in a steel cylinder, from the United States Enrichment Corporation in Paducah, Kentucky to Portsmouth, Virginia, where it was scheduled to be shipped overseas.

Fischer's truck lost control and flipped on its side around midnight. Fischer escaped with minor injuries while the fuel tanks of his truck caught on fire. The fire decimated the vehicle, turning it into a smoldering pile of metal.

The first volunteer fire departments to arrive on the scene did not have the necessary radiation detection equipment to determine if the cylinder was leaking. When they saw the radioactive plates on the truck they retreated and ordered the evacuation of nearby Sandstone, West Virginia. Shortly after 1 a.m. firefighters from Beckley, West Virginia arrived with the proper radiation detection equipment and took a series of readings, finding no elevated levels of radiation. The steel cylinder of UF6 was found to be intact and unharmed and was lifted onto a relief truck to be returned to Kentucky.

The Beckley firefighters were equipped with special training from the Department of Energy (DOE) Transportation Emergency Preparedness Program (TEPP), a program started in 1990. The training program works with state, local and tribal officials to train emergency responders in dealing with radiological materials in accidents. Last year alone the program trained over 2,300 emergency responders around the country.

The two-day training focuses on helping emergency responders understand the risks posed by radioactive materials and help them learn to proficiently use radiation detection equipment. The training gives emergency responders the information and ability to face accidents involving radioactive materials with more confidence. Lieutenant Bryan Trump, of the Beckley Fire Department, said, "We were a whole lot calmer than we would have been because we had been through the training, and we made better decisions."

The firefighters had been trained to look for certain hazards in order to better deal with accidents. For example, uranium hexafluoride, if it comes in contact with water, could create a hazardous chemical cloud. Knowing what they are dealing with allows emergency responders to manage radiological accidents much more capably. Ella McNeil, program manager for TEPP, said that the fire department's response to the accident, "shows that the TEPP program is making a difference to the responder community when there is an accident involving radiological materials."

The TEPP program has done training in New Mexico, including a full-scale transportation exercise in Laguna in 2008 and through the DOE Carlsbad Field Office. CCNS encourages TEPP to conduct training for emergency responders, including volunteer fire departments, along the transportation routes to and from Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.

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