Workers exposed to radiation

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Officials: Travels after leaving the lab still under investigation

By Tris DeRoma

According to Los Alamos National Laboratory officials, about 12 employees were accidentally exposed to Technetium-99, a type of low-level radiation that travels fast, but is stopped by the clothing and skin. As of press time, LANL is determining when and how the exposure occurred.

“They are investigating what exactly happened and how to accurately characterize it at this point,” said LANL Public Information Officer Nancy Ambrosiano.

The dosage the workers received is approximately 10 times lower than the allowable amount of millirems by law and does not pose a public health threat, according to LANL officials.

LANL officials are also saying that some of the employees apparently took the radiation home with them and a clean-up operation is now underway. As of late Monday afternoon, LANL officials could not say where the employees may have traveled after they left the lab.

One place that was checked though was Chamisa Elementary School.  According to a statement on the school’s site, Chamisa was given the all clear sign, with no signs of contamination found.

“We appreciate the thoroughness of the lab in assuring the safety of our students and staff,” said a statement on the site.

According to Ambrosiano, the contamination was found during a routine safety scan.

The maximum dose they received was 10 times lower than the allowable amount of millirems by law, she said.

Members of the Department of Energy's Radiological Assistance Program (RAP) teams are busy cleaning up the contamination and determining where else the employees may have gone besides their homes when they left the lab Saturday.

“We take any kind of accidental exposure extremely seriously and we are now determining how it happened, where the material went and where it came from,” Ambrosiano said.

According to Ambrosiano, Technetium 99 is a low-level radioactive product of uranium fission that can be used for medical or scientific research.  The exposed employees have not been harmed by the exposure.

The accident occurred at the Luján Neutron Scattering Center at LANL Science Center. The facility is located inside Technical Area 53, just off N.M. 4, otherwise known as the “truck route” into and out of town.

The region’s anti-nuclear community is using the incident as an “I told you so” moment, calling Saturday’s incident an all too common one in the history of Los Alamos.

“First, my concern goes out to the workers, their families and anybody else that was affected by this,” said anti-nuclear activist Aleric Balibrera. Balibrera recently came to public attention through his hunger strike protesting lab activities.

He was quick to note that N.M. 4 is a school bus route and he found it “very disconcerting” that notice wasn’t immediately given to the community. He also criticized LANL’s statement about the incident. “The sentence they have in there, ‘The contamination poses no danger to the public’ is LANL’s typical boilerplate response to events like this. Their information is very unreliable and they shouldn’t be trusted.  As I said during my hunger strike in my open letter to LANL, Bechtel (the company that manages LANL) values profits over safety, people and science.”

Information available online indicates that Technetium-99 (99Tc) is an isotope of technetium which decays with a half-life of 211,000 years to stable ruthenium-99, emitting soft beta rays, but no gamma rays. It is the most significant long-lived fission product of uranium fission, with a half-life over 2,000 times as long as the next longest-lived fission product.

On the other hand, Technetium-99m is a short-lived (half-life about six hours) metastable nuclear isomer used in nuclear medicine, produced from molybdenum-99. It decays by isomeric transition to technetium-99, a desirable characteristic, since the very long half-life and type of decay of technetium-99 imposes little further radiation burden on the body.

Statements from lab officials have not clarified which type of Technetium-99 the employees were exposed to or how much of the substance was involved in the exposure incident.

Check back to LAMonitor.com for more updates on this developing story...