Nuclear fuel pellets missing from plant

The operators of a Bluff Road nuclear fuel plant can't find 25 pounds of radioactive material - and federal investigators say that's a problem.

Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspect someone at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory deliberately moved uranium fuel pellets without properly accounting for them. Neither Westinghouse nor the NRC has been able to pinpoint the person.

Investigators say the fuel pellets, first reported missing in May, pose little danger to the public because the material likely never left the site. The pellets were probably recycled in the fuel plant, according to the NRC.

Even if the pellets did leave the site, they are not very dangerous because they are composed of low-enriched uranium and are in a stable form, officials said at a public meeting Thursday in Columbia. NRC lead investigator John Pelchat said it would be difficult to use the low-enriched uranium in a dirty bomb.

But federal regulators said Westinghouse should have kept better track of the nuclear material it manages. They were in Columbia to outline preliminary findings of the lost pellet probe.

"If you can lose a small amount and there are procedural issues (that contributed), you might lose a larger amount," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.

The Westinghouse factory on the Congaree River employs 1,200 people and makes fuel for many of the nation's atomic power plants. Tiny metal pellets are a key component in the fuel-making process. In this case, the missing pellets were in a plastic canister the size of an oversized mayonnaise container. The container was later found in the plant, minus the pellets.

Pelchat declined to say whether the NRC would fine Westinghouse or take other action against the company but said officials had been cooperative.

"We're still working on our assessment, so it is premature for us to say we're satisfied with their response," Pelchat said.

This year's loss of the fuel pellets isn't the first incident at the Westinghouse plant that has brought NRC scrutiny. Last year, it was revealed that a worker threw away vials of low-grade uranium. In 1997, workers at the plant lost two unenriched fuel rods. This year, the company discovered a worker had falsified ventilation data, but that it did not pose a danger, plant and federal officials said.

Westinghouse officials said they have taken steps to make sure they can better account for atomic material. That includes procedures to improve communication between employees as well as recertifying plant operators on how to keep track of uranium.

"We take our responsibilities for all our plant operations very seriously because of the nature of our business," said Cary Alstadt, the plant's manager. "Any type of issue like this is serious, and we address it as such."

Tom Clements, who tracks nuclear issues for the national environmental group Friends of the Earth, said Westinghouse needs to do better. While low-enriched uranium isn't as dangerous as other material, it still can present hazards. If the metal pellets were crushed, people could be exposed to unnecessary levels of radiation, he said.

"I'm really shocked about that," he said. "This has implications for not only health and safety but security as well."