The Hampton Roads, Virginia, newspaper the Daily Press reported Saturday that a dozen workers at the Surry Nuclear power plant were exposed to asbestos while performing repairs after a tornado knocked out power to the plant. According to the Daily Press:
Hundreds of contract employees arrived at Surry nuclear power plant in April to repair the aging facility.
Before work started, one of them told the Daily Press, safety officials said the jobs did not involve asbestos and any pipes containing asbestos would be clearly labeled.
They were wrong.
Flakes of the carcinogen went airborne after contractors cut a pipe, according to State Department of Labor and Industry reports obtained by the Daily Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Asbestos was later found on the clothes of a dozen workers and in three work trailers, the reports say.
The extent of asbestos contamination was difficult to measure:
How much asbestos the contractors were exposed to is unknown because the plant’s owner, Dominion Virginia Power, did not have air sampling equipment on site when workers cut into the pipes.
The Daily Press provided this account of the contamination:
Arthur Call belongs to the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union Local 540 in Newport News. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” the Poquoson resident began work at the plant days before a tornado forced the shut-down of its two reactors on April 16.
Normally quiet, the plant hummed with activity.
Electricians rebuilt the switchyard, which carries electricity in and out of the plant, while others cleared a tangled mess of downed tree limbs and aluminum poles. More contractors refueled one of the reactors, a previously scheduled task.
On April 22, Call was in the turbine building, where electricity is produced, with a few dozen pipe fitters. Their task: remove the old pipes while the reactor was down.
Using a blowtorch, they cut into a pipe. After removing a few sections, Call, standing on a mezzanine between the second and third floor, noticed something in the air.
“You could see the fibers falling all over you,” he said. “They looked like dust particles or a really fine snow.”
Call double-checked the pipe — there was no asbestos warning. Puzzled, a few pipe fitters followed the pipe two floors down and found a label.
It read: “Danger Asbestos.”
The nuclear plant’s owner, Dominion, sprang into action — three days later:
On April 25, three days after the original incident, the workers were ordered out of the turbine building. Quality employees took samples from pipes, scaffolding, the floor, basement, work trailers, the clothes of 22 contractors and some of their vehicles.
Dominion officials called a meeting later that day. Contractors were told “there was asbestos found in the area” and nothing else, the state reports say.
The delay made an accurate assessment of the health effects difficult to determine:
Because three days elapsed from the initial exposure to the sampling, there is no way to determine how much asbestos the contractors encountered, said Dr. Arthur Frank, chair of Drexel University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.
“Just because” the air sampling is “below the legal allowable limit doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said.