Colorado plutonium brought to LANL

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By Roger Snodgrass

Plutonium from a Department of Commerce laboratory in Boulder, Colo., where a plutonium spill occurred last June “has been recovered and transferred to Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

Richard Kayser Interim Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Boulder Laboratories assured the Interim City Manager of Boulder in a letter Tuesday that “the great majority of the plutonium” at the laboratory has been removed.

Paul Hoover, a LANL radiation protection senior advisor, confirmed that three samples were transferred from Boulder to Los Alamos. Two were intact and can be used as standards by the laboratory. The third was damaged in the incident, but can be recovered.

“We consulted while a subcontractor (to NIST) packaged and shipped the samples in accordance with Department of Transportation requirements and in DOT-certified containers,” he said. “They were received last week at TA-55 (the LANL Plutonium Facility).”

On June 10, the Boulder office of NIST reported that researchers discovered that a vial containing about ¼ gram of powdered plutonium had cracked and that “some particles had spilled from the vial.”

The description of the basic mixture was later modified, but the amount of plutonium remained the same.

The response of the personnel in physically isolating the cracked container and getting away from the hazardous source appeared to be a correct response, according to a safety review performed by Hoover, one of several subject matter expert reviews.

Hoover visited the Boulder facility on June 23-24, according to his report, investigating the facts of the event, studying the available documentation and interviewing 10 “persons of interest.”

A closer look at the immediate response, led him to conclude that it, along with many other aspects of the safety environment and preparedness at the site, were “less than adequate.”

Specifically, he noted that the extent of the initial rupture of the container was not recognized – even though the experimenter taped up the source in a can and washed his hands.

But workers were not immediately evacuated and notification to safety personnel was delayed.

According to Hoover’s report, when a supervisor  was called in, he made multiple entries – to investigate the ruptured source, to monitor the contamination and to isolate the ventilation – “without safety support, without understanding hazard or implementing appropriate controls (e.g. respiratory protection).”

The washing of hands and the subsequent scrubbing that was performed caused plutonium residue to be discharged into the sanitary sewer system of the city, which has resulted in much civic concern and multiple tests, according to information published by both NIST and the city.

Although the first phase of the testing program revealed “no counts significantly different from background,” according to Kayser’s letter this week to the city, a second set of tests will focus on sludge samples and will not be finished until next month.

Meanwhile, two acting directors, one at Boulder and one at NIST headquarters, have departed the organization. Four individual laboratories at the site and a machine shop were shut down because of safety concerns for people working in them or because of lack of updated training. One of the laboratories has since reopened.

A preliminary report required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the “handler error” that caused a vial to be cracked was the probable cause of the event, but noted that an additional cause of the spread of the contamination “was a lack of an emergency response plan, which left safety personnel unprepared and unequipped to respond to the incident.”

One key conclusion: “In sum, a culture has developed with respect to safety issues that NIST understands must be addressed broadly, beyond this specific event.”

“We were ready, able and did assist,” Hoover said in a telephone conversation this morning.

“Besides my independent review, we advised on recovery planning and ultimately helped by retrieving these samples. In addition, we consulted early on for immediate stabilization and recovery. We provided internal dosimetry measurements for the affected employees, a unique capability here.”

He said the assistance was in keeping with the laboratory’s recognized role as a center of excellence for dealing with plutonium and associated hazards and controls.