A Kerr-McGee Corp. nuclear- fuels processing plant in Oklahoma is not operated for the Department of Energy, as was reported in an article yesterday. It is a private facility.
The worker who died Saturday after an explosion at a nuclear-fuels processing plant in Oklahoma had inhaled a nonradioactive chemical so strong that industries use it to etch glass.
James Harrison, an employe of Kerr-McGee Corp. near Webbers Falls, Okla., was killed by a lethal dose of hydrofluoric acid, not by radiation poisoning. The acid was formed when an overloaded cylinder cracked and leaked 14 1/2 tons of radioactive uranium hexafluoride at the plant operated by Kerr-McGee for the Department of Energy.
Richard Cunningham, safetydivision director at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said yesterday that Harrison and five other workers also may have inhaled "a small amount of uranium" but that their burns and respiratory distress were caused by the nonradioactive chemical. Two of the five remained hospitalized yesterday.
"The uranium that leaked from the cylinder is very heavy and plates out solidifies too rapidly to be ingested in an accident like this," Cunningham said. He said uranium can impair kidney function and that doctors are examining the injured workers' kidneys for signs of damage.
Cunningham described the accident as "totally unexpected," a freak mishap that may have been the first of its kind anywhere in the world: "We only know of two others involving uranium fuel cylinders, and neither of them involved a fatality," he said. "One happened in France and the other in Portsmouth, Ohio, when a cylinder fell from a crane and broke open when it struck the ground."
The Oklahoma accident occurred after workers loaded a stainless steel cylinder with uranium hexafluoride and weighed it. The scale showed an incorrect weight of 27,650 pounds. The workers reweighed it on a different scale that registered 29,500 pounds, exceeding the cylinder's weight limit by almost one ton.
Cunningham said the workers then placed the cylinder in a steam jacket to liquefy the substance so they would be able to draw off the excess fluid. While the cylinder was being heated, it split and spilled the uranium hexafluoride into the atmosphere. There, he said, it reacted with the moisture in the air to form a mix of uranyl nitrate and hydrofluoric acid.
The deadlier of the two was the hydrofluoric acid, which moved rapidly through the air as a thick white cloud borne by winds gusting at more than 20 mph. Cunningham said Harrison was on a platform above the cylinder and could not avoid breathing the chemical.
"There was no fire and no big bang, but the cylinder's contents came out fast enough to react quickly with the atmosphere to form lots of hydrofluoric acid," Cunningham said. "This is a very toxic chemical that can cause pulmonary edema hemorrhaging and lead to a quick death from a rapid buildup of fluid in the lungs."
After the spill, as many as 29 workers were treated and released at the nearest hospital, officials said. Three others were taken to a hospital in Fort Smith, Ark., where Harrison died.
"It's still not at all clear what caused the accident," Cunningham said. "We don't know if the cylinder's rupture was caused by heat or fatigue in the steel that succumbed to the excess weight."
None of the workers was wearing protective clothing when the accident occurred, a fact that Cunningham attributed to the plant's more than 20 years without an accident. He said the NRC ordered the plant closed pending cleanup of the chemical and an investigation of the accident.
Kerr-McGee explores for natural resources, including oil and uranium. The company drew national attention in 1974 when Karen Silkwood, an employe of its plutonium processing plant in Crescent, Okla., died in a car accident as she went to meet a newspaper reporter to discuss concerns about plant safety. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that a $10 million damages award in her death, reversed in 1981, can be reconsidered by a jury.