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Bad Training Caused Mishandling Of Plutonium Spill

July 12, 2008
KMGH-TV

DENVER - An internal investigation found that sloppy safety procedures and poor training and response contributed to the mishandling of a plutonium spill at the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology lab last month.

A vial cracked June 9 and about one-quarter gram of powder containing plutonium spilled. An investigation by experts found that the vial probably cracked while three scientists were performing an experiment involving a spectroscopy system used to detect radiation.

One of the scientists, a visiting researcher from India, then washed his hands in the sink, sending a small amount of the plutonium down the drain into Boulder's public sewer system.

The researcher also left the lab with a contaminated notebook. Other researchers who entered and left the lab in the meantime were also exposed.

Even though the use of radioactive materials has increased over the years, the investigation found there were no procedures for handling plutonium or a plutonium spill.

Gail Porter, a NIST spokeswoman, said NIST is asking radiation experts to help them review their safety procedures.

"We are committed to strengthening our programs and their implementation to prevent such incidents in the future," Porter said.

One of the experts, retired supervisory health physicist Lester Slaback, said he wouldn't describe what happened as an accident.

"It was the inevitable (or at least highly likely) and forseeable end result" of problems in the lab, said Slaback, who worked at the lab for 21 years.

"These researchers are highly intelligent. Ignorance should not be an issue but certainly it was in this incident."

Officials say a few employees had internal plutonium exposure. Radiation from plutonium is weak but hazardous if ingested or inhaled.

Radiation was found in two buildings but officials say no threats to public health or the environment have been identified.

Federal officials have told the lab to stop using radioactive materials until it can show its procedures are safe.

NIST estimated that less than 11 percent of the spilled material may have ended up in the sewer system, which is within discharge limits of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has scheduled a Congressional hearing on the incident on Tuesday.

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