Prairie Island accident raises questions

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A nuclear industry watchdog group Tuesday called the May 5 accident at the Prairie Island nuclear plant in which 100 workers were contaminated with radioactive iodine the most serious release of radiation there in 20 years and raised questions about the federal reporting process.

“This was extremely serious, yet neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) nor Xcel thought it important enough to alert the public that this had happened,” said Bonnie Urfer of the Wisconsin-based Nukewatch organization.

The incident occurred May 5, when steam generators were not properly vented during some maintenance work, causing radioactive contaminants from the steam generators to escape into the containment building. The workers in the building were not wearing respirators and inhaled the contaminated air, which was primarily radioiodine.

The incident was recorded in the NRC’s Current Morning Report, but not made public until reporters were alerted to the situation on Tuesday. Both NRC and Xcel officials downplayed the accident, noting that the workers were exposed to “low levels” of radioiodine, decontaminated, and sent home.

But Urfer explained that the term “low level” simply refers to radioactive material that is not potent enough to manufacture nuclear weapons and argued that the reported 17 millirems of radioiodine to which the workers were exposed is no small matter. “We won’t know for who knows how long what the effects will be,” she said. “But I would not want to be one of the workers who breathed in that iodine.”

Part of the problem, Urfer said, is that few companies have much experience with the construction project currently underway at Prairie Island. Only a handful of nuclear facilities have had the lid (also known as the vessel head) of their reactor replaced. “In removing the dome, they would not have a whole lot of experience in re-venting the containment building,” she said. “They weren’t very good at their job.”

NRC officials said they will investigate the incident and release a full report.

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