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Workers contaminated upgrading glovebox

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By Tris DeRoma

Workers in the plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory were hit with ariborne radioactive contamination Sept. 23 from a glovebox after they removed a plug in the box that let the contamination out into the room they were working in.
Three workers were exposed, including one that was exposed to radiation on his chest. According to a report on the incident issued by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, all the workers were tested.
“Nasal smears were all determined to be negative and the workers were placed on special bioassay (tested and monitored),” the report read.
They were unharmed by the accident, according to a LANL spokesperson Friday, who asked for his name not to be used.
“The worker that received skin contamination was successfully and thoroughly decontaminated -- mostly by washing off the contamination with water,” the spokesperson said. “None of the three workers received any measurable dose, and there was no risk to the public. The facility’s safety systems worked as designed.”
Measurements taken after the accident revealed that the airborne contamination reached levels as high as 4,520 DAC hours in the room, and lower readings in an adjacent room and in an area in the facility’s north corridor. The floor of the north corridor was also found to be contaminated.
At the time of the exposure all the workers were wearing anti-contamination clothing and air purifying respirators.
The workers left the room when the air contamination started to reach levels above safety thresholds.
The workers were attempting to remove two elbows hooked into the glove box’s service panel with shorter elbows. The project was to upgrade a chilled water line located on the underside of the glovebox. A plug on the interface was preventing one of the elbows from being removed, so one of the workers decided to remove it.

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“They believed they had allowance to take such an action because the work document provided only vague constraints on ‘field routing’,” a statement in the DNFSB report said.

After the incident, the report mentioned “fact-finding attendees” discussing concerns and corrective actions to be taken after the incident, including a more detailed explanation about field routing. Among the other concerns addressed was making sure there was on-call support during off-hours. The incident happened on a Saturday. Also discussed was
“worker perceptions of increased programmatic pressure for project work.”

According to the DNFSB report, the same crew were the ones involved in a criticality incident in mid-August, when it was discovered someone had moved plutonium shell to an area that already contained plutonium, violating the posted set limits of the amounts of plutonium that can be in one area. The mistake was discovered Aug. 21. The incident involved the first shell that was cast at the facility since operations were suspended four years ago amid safety concerns and to conduct retraining operations.

After the Aug. event, another safety review was performed, and new safety protocols put in place designed to better track the movement of plutonium throughout the facility.  

After the Sept. 23 event, the lab released a statement ensuring the public that they nor were workers in any great danger.

“The Laboratory’s work with nuclear materials on behalf of the country is complex, challenging and comes with inherent risks.  The safety systems and procedures in place at the Laboratory’s plutonium facility are designed to greatly reduce the risk to Laboratory employees, the public and the environment, and make it the safest place for this type of work,” a spokesperson for the lab said.