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Software bug blamed in radioactive spill

A programming error at a uranium processing plant in Western Australia leads to a failure in a control system and a rupture in a pipe carrying radioactive fluid.

SYDNEY, Australia--Amec Engineering, which designed the Beverly uranium processing plant in Western Australia, has blamed buggy software for a radioactive spill that occurred at the site last December, confirming early suspicions that computers played a role in the accident.

"After a detailed assessment of the incident it is now clear that the problem was caused by a computer programming error that has since been corrected," said Stephen Middleton, spokesman for the plant's operator, Heathgate Resources.

According to Amec's report, the glitch cut power to the plant's fluid-distribution control system during a routine service exercise. At the time, the mechanism should have shut down pumps moving fluid into the plant.

"Before they could be shut down manually, pressure built up in the pipelines leading into the plant and one ruptured," Middleton said.

According to Middleton, Amec has re-examined the entire system, retested the plant's pipes and corrected the "computer logic error." He refused to name the software technology responsible for the error.

Staff writer Andrew Colley reported from Sydney.