Japanese radiation leak puts spotlight on U.S. nuclear safety
October 1, 1999
(CNN) -- Thursday's accident at a nuclear processing plant in Japan has turned the spotlight on the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States.
Among those facilities is a Westinghouse plant near Columbia, South Carolina, that produces nuclear fuel for 47 nuclear reactors in the United States and overseas. Though there have been no significant accidents or radiation releases in the plant's 30-year history, the man who oversees operations there says that's no reason for complacency.
"We're not walking away in any fashion, believing that it could not happen here," said plant manager Jack Allen. "What we are saying is that we design and operate ... and we regulate ourselves openly so that we can prevent such an occurrence."
The Columbia plant, like others in the United States, uses only 5 percent enriched uranium. The Japanese plant, officials believe, used almost 19 percent enriched uranium, which can be problematic.
Allen says a well-run plant with an experienced staff -- and alert control room operator -- is the best defense against accidents. At the Columbia plant, workers average 20 years on the job.
At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, officials are in the process of dealing with a potential problem generated by 50 years of weapons production.
A witch's brew of 54 million gallons of toxic and radioactive waste is stored in 177 tanks. In one of those tanks, an accidental over-concentration of waste several years ago allowed a crust to form on top, which thickened to eight feet and allowed explosive hydrogen gas to build beneath it.
Officials at the plant used a mechanical arm to stir part of the crust, allowing some of the hydrogen to escape. Within a month, workers expect to begin pumping some of the dangerous liquid from the tank.
Two years ago, one of the waste tanks exploded, but no radioactive materials were released.
Despite the problems, officials at Hanford claim there is no risk that nuclear waste in any of these tanks will accidentally trigger a sustained nuclear chain reaction such as the one that occurred in Tokaimura, Japan.
"There's no way we can have a criticality in those tanks, and that's been sanctioned by a lot of the experts who've examined our work," said Jackson Kinzer of the Department of Energy, which runs the Hanford site.
Still, concern that practices at Hanford's plutonium finishing plant could trigger a chain reaction led to a two- year suspension of the process until this year, when procedures were changed.
Many who live around Hanford view the possibility of a nuclear accident in much the same way as people in California view earthquake risks.
"I think it's in the back of their minds. We all think about it," says John Schmidt, a state air quality inspector who says that, nonetheless, he's confident those who run Hanford can keep it safe.
At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Japanese accident is getting a lot of attention.
Nuclear response teams are studying the so-called "criticality" accident to determine if any procedures need to be changed. While Los Alamos does not process uranium like the Japanese facility, scientists do handle radioactive materials in their research to make nuclear weapons more reliable.
U.S. experts suspect Japanese uranium workers improperly combined nuclear materials, setting off a self-sustaining chain reaction. But officials at Los Alamos say safety precautions make such an accident at their plant unlikely.
"We have sufficient engineering design controls and procedural controls to prevent an accidental criticality from happening in our facilities," said laboratory spokeswoman Evelyn Mullen.
There have been three "criticality" incidents at Los Alamos in the 56 years the plant has been in operation. However, all three were small-scale, and the last was back in 1958.
Many Los Alamos residents say they have confidence in the safety procedures.
"I'm not too worried about it. I mean, if it happens, I don't have any control," said Rainy Kim, a Los Alamos resident. "It's out of my hands."
Correspondents Charles Zewe, Brian Cabell and Don Knapp contributed to this report.
Japan takes stock after Tokaimura nuclear accident
U.S. Department of Energy - Hanford Home Page
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