Energy Department clears confusion over hot-spot ‘pig’ in nuclear shipment

The Citizen Advisory Board dedicated a large portion of its Tuesday meeting discussing the so-called hotspot on a container during a nuclear material shipment to Savannah River Site last month.

 

Department of Energy spokesman Tony Polk said the presentation at the two-day bi-monthly meeting was important to clear up what he called “assertions in the press.”

Polk sought to clarify misconceptions about the “pig” and the process of shipment and receipt, which he said has led to inaccurate claims of leaks or contamination.

According to Polk, the material is packaged in legal truck weight containers, sealed inside of a shielded container. The entire system is shipped together and is placed into the H-Canyon facility through a series of maneuvering through air locks.

Once inside, those legal weight containers are individually opened. These have an adapter attached to the opening and equipment to maneuver another shielded container – “the pig” – is connected to the adapter. The pig is then used to move material into the processing areas of the facility.

Polk said equipment known as a “gripper” slides from the bottom through the center of the pig and grabs the internal canister containing the material. It then slides that canister back into the pig and seals it, so workers can then maneuver it into the canyon for processing.

According to Polk and an accompanying video, the “pigs” are not directly involved in shipping. The hotspot located by personnel was done after the other processes were complete and he said no transport equipment was contaminated.

The eight workers involved, though, were exposed to about 5 millirem of radiation. Polk confirmed that all personnel were wearing proper protective equipment. According the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the average American is exposed to 620 millirem annually just from natural sources.

Polk said the process is new and they are learning better efficiency, adding that a mock up and training before the DOE signed off on the receipt of materials earlier this year helps workers stay safe.

“We took all appropriate actions necessary to perform operations safely,” Polk said. “Things went absolutely as what was expected to occur. The Department’s perspective is that things went extremely well.”

Since the April incident noted in the Defense Nuclear Facility Board Reports, shipments of the liquid highly enriched uranium have continued. Each shipment takes approximately one week to process, and the Department of Energy expects as many as 250 shipments to finish moving the material from Canada to the U.S.

Shipment of the material used for medical isotope production in Chalk River, Ontario, initiated a lawsuit from several groups asking the Energy Department to do a full environmental assessment before being allowed to transport the material in liquid form. The judge dismissed the case in early 2017, and the first shipment arrived at SRS in mid-April.

Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com

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