Traffic

Traffic flowing on I-95 after containers of radioactive material dumped onto highway

Posted March 31, 2021 12:36 p.m. EDT
Updated March 31, 2021 8:19 p.m. EDT

— A truck carrying a radioactive compound dumped part of its load Wednesday on southbound Interstate 95 in Cumberland County, creating a delicate cleanup and hours of traffic delays.

Two of the four 1,000-gallon containers of uranium hexafluoride the truck was carrying fell off at about 11:45 a.m. between Exit 55 and Exit 58 for Interstate 295 near Wade. No injuries were reported, and none of the material leaked from the containers, said Gene Booth, Cumberland County's emergency management director.

Uranium hexafluoride is a low-level radioactive material used in the nuclear fuel enrichment process. It's often transported as a waste in a solid form, and it turns to gas at higher temperatures. The main concern on site was chemical burns if the material were to escape from the containers.

Hazmat teams, State Highway Patrol, state Department of Transportation crews and firefighters came up with a plan to safely clear the containers from the highway, Booth said. Crews spent more than three hours getting the two containers back onto the trailer from which they fell.

"It's not a large evacuation area, but it's still a corrosive material and can react with moisture or water. So, they're going to be very careful with how they handle it," Booth said during the process.

I-95 was shut down in both directions for more than an hour before northbound lanes reopened. Southbound lanes reopened shortly after 4 p.m.

Some residents who live nearby blamed concrete construction barriers for a rash of crashes in recent weeks.

“We’ve had at least an accident a week since they started this construction, and they all look exactly like this," Larry Shaul said. "They get into that merge area, and they get a collision, and then the traffic goes from one side to the other, and then it shuts down both ways."

The truck was operated by Hittman Transport Services, based in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The company touts that it specializes in the transport of low-level radioactive materials, averaging 8 million miles a year and 300 radioactive transports per month.

"Transport of this type is conducted all the time," said Curtis Roberts, a spokesman for Orano USA, which hired Hittman to transport the uranium hexafluoride.

Orano handles used nuclear fuel and works to decommission, shut down and clean up nuclear facilities. Roberts said the shipment on the truck that crashed was headed to a customer for nuclear fuel conversion, but he wouldn't confirm where the shipment was headed.

"In the fifty-plus years of moving around uranium and other radioactive materials, there's never been an incident that caused harm to either people or the environment," he said.

Hittman has a good safety record, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, which show only one accident during the past two years that resulted in one injury.

The records also show only five citations for hazardous materials issues since March 2019, but only one of those involved failure to comply with regulations. Two of the citations were for improper placards, while two others were for a package not being labeled properly and a lack of paperwork.

Hittman had no vehicles or drivers pulled off the road over the last two years, following 173 hazmat and 311 driver inspections, federal records show. Eight vehicles were sidelined during 280 vehicle inspections during that time, but its 2.9 percent out-of-service rate was far below the national average of 27 percent.

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