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  • Plutonium scare drives NIST overhaul

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2008
David L. Shenkenberg,

GAITHERSBURG, Md. – According to a Sept. 1, 2008, report by Tim Kauffman of the Federal Times, a guest researcher was shot in the eye with an infrared laser while placing a slide on a microscope at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., in March 2008. As a result of the incident, the researcher has required continuing medical care. NIST says that it has tightened its laser safety policies as a result.

In June 2008, a guest researcher at the Boulder, Colo., NIST laboratories broke a vial of plutonium powder. He walked through other areas of the building and washed his hands in a sink and thus spread the contamination not only to his co-workers but also to the city of Boulder, which has about 300,000 residents in its entire metropolitan area, according to 2006 figures from the US Census Bureau.

Although the vial was sealed in a bag that added a layer of protection against contamination, the guest researcher repeatedly taped the bag to a detector, and the bag eventually broke. He was conducting experiments aimed at improving plutonium detectors.

Later, with the help of a NIST employee, the guest researcher tapped the vial on a lab bench to settle the plutonium. On another day, he held the vial on a lead brick used as a radiation shield while using a computer with his other hand.

Suddenly, he realized that tapping the vial on either the lab bench or the lead brick cracked the vial, which is when he placed the vial in an aluminum can, washed his hands in a lab sink and wandered into the hallway to use the restroom. The lab sink goes into the sewer system of the city of Boulder.

An external review was performed by Richard E. Toohey, a radiation specialist with more than 35 years of experience. The report described several problems that led to the plutonium spill, and the evaluation concluded that a lax safety culture was to blame. Perhaps most importantly, the guest researcher had received no training in the use of radioactive materials. The principal investigator knew that his employees needed radiation safety training, and so did the safety officer. However, each assumed that the other would know when new employees should undergo training.

The principal investigator said that he was unaware that the purchase of plutonium needed authorization by NIST headquarters. NIST spokesman Benjamin Stein said, “NIST cannot disclose the identity of the PI [or the guest researcher] in order to protect the medical privacy of the individual, who was tested for plutonium exposure.” A report pursuant to 10 Code of Federal Regulations 50.30(c)(2) revealed that the guest researcher is a foreign national, but the document did not name the country of origin.

The lab is audited by upper-level managers once a year. One such manager was talking on his mobile phone during most of one particular audit.

There was only one safety officer at the entire Boulder site, and he was about to go on vacation when the incident occurred. He concentrated on laser safety rather than on radiation safety. Although he took appropriate action when informed of the spill, he had only one detector at his disposal that could pick up the alpha particles that plutonium radiates. He analyzed urine samples because they can reveal the extent of internal plutonium exposure, which has the potential to cause cancer over time. Exposure is treated with injections of a chemical that binds to plutonium atoms in the body, facilitating excretion through the urine.

Thermal ionization mass spectrometry on urine samples performed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico confirmed the findings of the lone safety officer at NIST that more than a dozen of the 29 researchers were exposed to radiation. However, NIST said that the radiation exposure was minimal and likely to cause no long-term effects. The vial of plutonium contained just one-fourth of a gram of powder, about the size of a dime.

Stein said, “Boulder wastewater and city officials have not expressed health concerns for the local population due to the potential discharge, and no health risk is expected for workers at the sewage system.” A phase I radiological survey of the city’s treatment plant found that radiation was not above background. Phase II tests on sewage were expected to take place in October.

In July, a hearing of a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology reviewed the procedures at NIST. The chairman wrote, “NIST researchers are renowned for their exemplary scientific work. It is disappointing to learn that this leadership does not appear to extend to laboratory health and safety issues.”

NIST Deputy Director James M. Turner spoke at the congressional hearing. He said, “The physicians are relaying that the estimated doses, and the increased overall risk for cancer based on these estimates, are so small we don’t expect there to be any clinically significant impact on either the short- or long-term health of anyone exposed.”

On Sept. 16, 2008, Turner announced that he is leaving his position at NIST to become Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Patrick D. Gallagher, a 15-year veteran of NIST, will replace Turner. The Secretary of Commerce has established the Blue Ribbon Commission on Management and Safety to examine NIST’s practices throughout the institution.

Immediately after the incident, NIST shut down four labs. So far, only one has reopened.

An instrument consisting essentially of a tube 160 mm long, with an objective lens at the distant end and an eyepiece at the near end. The objective forms a real aerial image of the object in the focal plane of the eyepiece where it is observed by the eye. The overall magnifying power is equal to the linear magnification of the objective multiplied by the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The eyepiece can be replaced by a film to photograph the primary image, or a positive or negative relay...
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