Thursday, January 10, 2008

DOE seeks fine for PNNL leaks

January 4, 2008

The Department of Energy is proposing a $288,750 fine -- which won't have to be paid -- against Battelle Memorial Institute because of two plutonium radiation leaks at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

PNNL failed to adhere to its own procedures for independent assessment relating to management review of quality of work and potential risks, DOE said.

Battelle, which has managed the DOE lab since 1965, has had only one other violation at PNNL under the regulatory authority of the Price-Anderson Amendments Act of 1988. That was in 1996, and there was no fine.

The proposed fine this time is mostly symbolic because federal law exempts nonprofit entities such as Battelle from having to pay fines associated with nuclear safety enforcement, said Greg Koller, spokesman for the lab.

"We will not be writing a check," Koller said.

The incidents, which exposed workers to radiation, were well below DOE's occupational exposure limits.

The first occurred in December 2006 when a vacuum exhaust line split after an inappropriate modification, allowing an airborne release of plutonium inside the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory.

The second happened in June 2007 when a sealed plutonium source used for experiments failed, releasing contamination that was spread beyond the PNNL campus in Richland. Four employees were affected. Ineffective controls for safe handling of nuclear materials are blamed for it.

DOE said the proposed fine is based on the significance of the violations, but recognized Battelle for working to prevent future radiological leaks.

Koller said PNNL did followup investigations to discover what mistakes were made and took immediate steps to correct problems.

"We failed to live up to our own expectations and values. But we mounted a comprehensive response," Koller said.

The corrective actions include improved training, more rigorous radiation exit survey requirements, stronger oversight and better procedures for handling sealed radiological sources.

"While we regret that these incidents occurred, it's important to remember there were no health impacts to staff or the public," Koller said.

Earl Fordham, a certified health physicist with the Washington Department of Health, said the December 2006 leak was handled entirely by DOE as an internal matter. The state did not get involved because the leak did not go beyond DOE-controlled areas, Fordham noted.

A PNNL researcher and two visiting scientists received low levels of contamination in that incident, said Koller in a statement Thursday.

"The PNNL staff member received less than 1 percent of the annual regulatory limit established by DOE for radiation workers," Koller said.

The visiting scientists were assigned the same dose, although they likely received less, he added.

Fordham said the June 2007 incident caused contamination in areas outside DOE's regulatory authority, but was so small, "no health impacts are expected," he said.

Koller told the Herald in a September interview that three employees at Building 326 were working with a sealed disc containing plutonium 238 during a test. The disc leaked because it was exposed to minus 40 degrees Celsius during experiments.

The exposure contaminated four workers' clothing and was spread to Building 329.

Three workers had low-level skin contamination, Koller said, which was spread to homes and cars of two employees who handled the disc.

An investigation confirmed low-level contamination of property belonging to employees and their families, including several autos. Battelle paid for cleanup and replacement of the contaminated items and cars.

One worker received about 6 percent of the annual regulatory limit set by DOE. The others had "considerably less," Koller said.

Koller said PNNL's Price-Anderson enforcement action in 1996 was for inadequate maintenance on and response to alarms monitoring radioactive waste tank levels.

No comments: