Radioactive shipment shifted, posed safety risk

Feb. 17. 2009

RED WING, Minn. (The Associated Press)

A radioactive piece of equipment shipped from the Prairie Island, Minn.,

nuclear plant to Pennsylvania in October shifted during transport, and had

radiation levels eight times over safety standards by the time it reached

its destination.

 

Plant vice president Mike Wadley called it a serious and rare event.

The plant notified the Nuclear Regulation Commission immediately, Wadley

said Monday. Westinghouse Electric Co., which received the shipment, also

filed a report.

The NRC notified Wadley by mail last week that it issued a preliminary

"yellow" finding in the incident, which is the third-highest of four safety

risk rankings.

The equipment - a 13-foot-long canister used to test the integrity of

fuel rods last fall - was put into a metal box for shipment and placed on a

semi. The equipment is always shipped by itself.

"It isn't migrated or commingled with any other shipment," Wadley

said. "The trucker, no workers, no members of the public were affected."

Scott Northard, plant manager at Prairie Island, said that sometime

during shipping, a microscopic radioactive particle ended up close to the

surface of the container.

"Our survey of the container and package before it was placed in the

box should have been more detailed and should have identified this discrete

radioactive particle and the potential for exceeding the limit," Northard

said.

The plant is owned by Xcel Energy. In written communications with Xcel

Energy, the NRC said workers who packed the box weren't qualified and had

not been properly trained.

The agency said it was only a matter of chance that the public wasn't

exposed to radiation, partly because the particle ended up at the bottom of

the container, not on the side of the container - where it would have been

closer to people in nearby vehicles.

Prairie Island ships this type of equipment about once every four or

five years, and the company has set up new procedures, including training,

to prevent another episode like this.

"We think we've eliminated the possibility going forwarded," Wadley

said.

The utility's officials and plant managers are reviewing the NRC's

finding and will decide if they will respond in person or in writing.

A final NRC determination is expected within 90 days.

Xcel Energy is applying for permission to expand production at its two

nuclear plants, and to store more radioactive waste on site. Later this

week, representatives from the NRC will visit the Prairie Island plant as

they consider the company's request.