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Alert Called Off at Nuclear Plant Where Uranium Was Put In Waste Tank

June 1, 1991

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) _ Federal officials on Saturday ended a two-day alert at a nuclear fuel processing plant that was prompted by the discovery of 330 pounds of uranium in a waste tank.

The alert, which began Thursday, was called off early Saturday after plant workers had removed all but 82 pounds of uranium left in the tank.

″They’re not sure what happened - system error, human error, lab error,″ said spokesman Bill Cline of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ″Something happened and it got pumped to the wrong tank.″

The process of removing the uranium was getting more difficult because the uranium was getting more and more diluted, Cline said.

No radiation was released and no one was injured in the incident at the GE Nuclear Fuel and Components Manufacturing Facility. However, a senior official for the commission said there was a potential for a nuclear reaction if the uranium had pooled at the bottom of the tank.

″If there had been nuclear fission, there could have been a release of radioactive gases, some steam from boiling water and some direct radiation,″ said Gerald Troup, the commission’s senior fuel facility specialist in Atlanta.

″A quarter of mile away, you’d have measurable, but not biologically significant amounts of radioactivity. A person within 10 feet of it, we’d send flowers. It sounds crass, but that’s reality.″

Workers pumped the uranium from the 20,000-gallon waste tank into a centrifuge, where the uranium is separated from the water. The slow process was hampered by the breakdown of the centrifuge, but a second centrifuge was put in place Friday, officials said.

About 1,200 people are employed at the plant, which processes fuel for nuclear reactors, converting enriched uranium into uranium pellets and stacking it into rods to be shipped to nuclear plants. Investigators believe the problem developed in the part of the plant where uranium scraps are normally separated from the waste left over from the processing of the pellets.

The GE facility is one of 10 uranium fuel facilities licensed by the commission and the only one run by General Electric.

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