Decision on fine is due soon for loss of uranium vials

Federal regulators will determine in the next month what kind of fine Westinghouse Electric Co. might face for losing 16 small containers of low-grade uranium from the company's commercial nuclear fuel plant in Columbia.

The loss appears to be accidental with no real risk to the public, said Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Atlanta.

Federal and company officials met in Atlanta this week to discuss the loss, first discovered by Westinghouse workers in February.

Westinghouse officials referred questions to a spokeswoman for the plant, who did not immediately return a phone message Friday.

According to the NRC, the vials contained a total of 4.5 ounces of low-enriched uranium with a radioactivity level equivalent to what a person would get on a flight from New York to London.

Still, Hannah said, all material must be accounted for.

“Any material, no matter how small or no matter what the radiation level, that's licensed material that is lost or misplaced we take very seriously,” he said.

The Monroeville, Pa.-based company searched its plant, a metal shredding facility in Spartanburg and a landfill in Elgin, but didn't find the vials. No radioactivity was found at the outside sites, the NRC said in a news release.

“There is some speculation that it may have ended up in a landfill and it's certainly not the kind of material that would create a problem in that situation,” Hannah said.

The NRC said South Carolina's environmental agency will determine whether any action has to be taken at the landfill. A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control referred all questions to the NRC.

The NRC said there were three apparent violations at Westinghouse: failure to follow procedures for custody of licensed material, failure to prevent unauthorized removal of licensed material and failure to read and sign procedures for disposal of shipping containers.

Hannah said the violations appear to be minor and the company would likely be fined less than $50,000, if there is a fine imposed. The maximum fine, if the violations were determined to be more severe, could be twice that.

“It appears to be … something that may have been an oversight,” Hannah said. “It doesn't appear to be any activities that were done intentionally.”

Hannah said the company's history and corrective action taken also would be considered when determining a fine. The company has been cited seven times in the past 11 years for violations at its Columbia plant, most recently in May for a 2006 incident in which an employee intentionally bypassed an alarm.

The company has been fined twice: $24,000 in 2004 for excessive ash buildup and $13,750 in 1998 for failing to correct a safety issue.