One of the hundreds of truckloads of radioactive material that pass through Asheville each year was seen leaking on Friday, June 25. A passing motorist spotted liquid dripping from the tanker as it sped along rain-dampened Interstate 26 on its way from the Nuclear Fuel Services manufacturing plant in Erwin, Tenn., to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.
The motorist phoned the N.C. Highway Patrol, which intercepted the trucker and sidetracked him at the weigh station between Fletcher and Hendersonville.
Paperwork provided by the driver indicated that his cargo was uranyl nitrate and Henderson County Emergency Management was called in to evaluate the situation.
Emergency Management Coordinator Rocky Hyder told Xpress that the leak was small. "Something less than a pint leaked while the truck was at the weigh station."
Uranyl nitrate is a liquid form of yellowcake uranium; dissolved in acid, it's used to manufacture reactor fuel and weapons-grade fissionable material. After processing at Savannah River, the same uranium may travel back through Asheville headed for the Oak Ridge Reservation Y-12 bomb factory.
Nuclear Fuel Services referred questions about the incident to the Creative Energy Group, an advertising and public-relations firm in Johnson City, Tenn. Tony Treadway, the agency's president, told Xpress that the concentration of uranium in the liquid was "less than 1 percent." Asked how often such shipments pass through Asheville, Treadway responded, "It's very irregular for a shipment of that concentration to come through."
Xpress: "How often do NFS trucks carrying radioactive material come through Asheville, North Carolina?"
Treadway: "We can't share that information. Since Sept. 11, we don't share a lot of that information, for obvious reasons."
Asked the same question, Hyder replied, "I'm not sure of the exact number, but I would expect we have shipments coming through here every day."
A tanker carrying 1,000 gallons of 1 percent uranyl nitrate would carry about 800 pounds of uranium, according to calculations based on information in Federal Register environmental documents available on the EPA Web site. According to the same documents, tankers containing 3,000 gallons of 4 percent uranyl nitrate routinely traverse Asheville's interstate highways.
Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, an environmental group, told Xpress, "This week's spill is but one in a long series of accidents involving radioactive materials. State and federal agencies routinely issue statements saying, 'no danger,' regardless of the facts. But radioactivity is an invisible and odorless poison, and few people have geiger counters. So, it's easy to cover up the damage. The bottom line is: There is no safe level of radioactive exposure."