October 28, 2014 / 3:36 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. nuclear regulators probing leak at Honeywell uranium plant

Oct 28 (Reuters) - U.S. nuclear regulators are investigating a leak of uranium hexafluoride that occurred on Sunday at an Illinois plant operated by Honeywell International Inc where union workers have been locked out.

Honeywell confirmed the Sunday evening leak at its Metropolis, Illinois plant, saying it was due to an equipment failure. There were no injuries and no reason to believe anyone was endangered by the leak, according to Honeywell.

An inspector from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started an investigation at the plant on Tuesday, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

“At this point we’re still in a fact-finding mode,” Hannah said. “We haven’t come to any conclusions about whether processes weren’t followed.” He said the investigation could take a few days to a week.

Honeywell’s Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which is then enriched to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

Uranium hexafluoride is radioactive, and if released into the air can be chemically toxic.

Honeywell workers on the site followed all emergency procedures and plant safety systems performed as designed, company spokesman Peter Dalpe said.

For example, water mitigation systems sprayed into the air after the leak to knock down and contain the substance, Dalpe said.

“There were no injuries and no indication that any UF6 material left the site,” Dalpe said in an emailed statement.

About 135 members of United Steelworkers Local 7-669 have been locked out of the plant since the start of August, after a three-year contract expired.

Honeywell continued to operate the plant after the lockout, with the remaining roughly 135 plant employees who are non-union, as well as with contingent workers.

John Smith, a spokesman for USW Local 7-669, said it was hard to speculate what might have been different had the union’s workers been back at the plant. “But I definitely know that our members have a lot more experience than the people running the plant right now,” Smith said. (Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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