No fine for LANL after contamination incident

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Lab > Report says 30 workers were affected

The Los Alamos National Laboratory will not be fined by the Department of Energy’s Office of Enforcement after a contamination incident at the Neutron Science Center last year.

According to a federal report, 30 workers were contaminated with radioactive Technetium-99 in an incident last August.

According to a letter sent to Lab Director Charlie McMillan from the DOE Office of Enforcement, LANS identified beta contamination at the LANSCE Luján Center and adjoining building 622. The highest contamination levels were found at the Luján Center, inside experimental area room ER-1, with levels exceeding 240 million disintegrations per minute (dpm) per I00 cm 2 (i.e., the maximum reading for the measurement device used).

Offsite, at least nine homes were found with beta contamination, at levels up to 64,000 dpm. Five employees were identified with skin contamination at levels up to 16,800 dpm, and 25 employees had contaminated personal clothing and items with levels up to 980,000 dpm.

The federal accident investigation called the contamination completely preventable and described a culture of lax adherence to typical safety procedures at the lab’s Neutron Science Center, where a technician unknowingly reused a canister that had contained radioactive Technetium-99, triggering the contamination.

The DOE oversight group said LANS “failed to maintain and verify the effectiveness of administrative and engineering controls” for preventing and detecting the spread of beta contamination, it said radiological controls in place were “sufficient to prevent the inadvertent release of more significant radionuclides, such as alpha and gamma emitters.”

According to the Office of Enforcement, LANS’ corrective actions following the incident were “prompt and conservative” and the corrective action plan was “detailed and comprehensive.” It added: “Because it was unlikely that more significant radionuclides could have been released, and in recognition of the comprehensive scope of LANS’s corrective actions, the Office of Enforcement and Oversight has elected to exercise discretion and not pursue further enforcement activity at this time,” the Office of Enforcement said.

“In conjunction with the National Nuclear Security Administration, we will continue to monitor LANS’s completion of the corrective actions.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, all isotopes of technetium are radioactive. Technetium-99, chemical symbol Tc-99, is a silver-gray, radioactive metal. It occurs naturally in minute amounts in the earth’s crust, but is primarily man-made. The most commonly available isotope is Tc-99m (called metastable Tc-99) and is the shorter-lived parent of Tc-99.

When the federal investigation was released, the lab issued the following statement.

“We accept the NNSA’s report and thank the investigation team. In addition to internal follow-up already under way, the lab will now develop a corrective action plan to address the judgments of need and other issues outlined in the report.

“Although the contamination never posed a public health hazard, the deficiencies that led to the accident are not acceptable. Safety of our workers and the public is our highest priority. We can and must do better.  We will take the actions necessary to correct the deficiencies and prevent a recurrence. 

“We apologize to our scientific colleagues from outside institutions who were not able to conduct experiments at the Luján Center.  We are working to reopen the facility as soon as possible and accommodate our affected users.”