Brookhaven Lab eyed after radiation leak

The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton.

The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. (Credit: Handout)

Brookhaven National Lab is conducting a review of all of its radiological operations -- halting some of them during the examination -- after an incident last month in which radioactivity was found on two technicians.

Officials at the Upton lab said the incident, in which a sealed device leaked a very small amount of radioactive material, does not pose a threat to the environment or anyone's health.

But the Sept. 28 leak was significant enough that the lab is conducting a "comprehensive review of all radiological policies, procedures, practices and training programs," lab officials said in a statement.

A parking lot, a vehicle and a building were also exposed to the radioactivity, officials said.

The technicians had been checking radiation detectors when a lead container holding a brass rod in which radioactive material was stored tipped over in a pickup truck, said George Goode, the lab's assistant director for environment, safety and health.

The material in the brass rod was identified by Goode as cesium-137, an isotope formed by nuclear fission, which is sometimes used in cancer treatment. The cesium-137 in the rod was being used to test the radiation detectors to see whether they were working.

Neither technician had to go to a hospital, Goode said. One had contamination on his hand, which was immediately washed. He was measured to have absorbed 3.4 millirems of cesium-137, well below the annual dose limit for hands of 50,000 millirems, Goode said.

A radiation safety expert said the amount of cesium-137 involved was so small as to pose minimal health risk.

"Keep in mind you're talking about extraordinarily tiny quantities of this," said Bruce Emmer, a medical physicist and radiation safety officer at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.

Emmer said the amount of radioactive exposure the Brookhaven staffer received was less than the amount a plane passenger flying round-trip to California and back would be exposed to from cosmic rays in the atmosphere.

The review should yield a report by Friday, Goode said.

During the review, operations in some lab departments will be cut back, or suspended "where there is a potential for release" of radiation, he said.

Environmentalist Adrienne Esposito, a member of the lab's Community Advisory Council for 12 years, said the lab notified the council on Friday about the Sept. 28 incident.

"This is unusual because the lab's safety record for the past several years has been very good," she said, adding that "a total review is needed."

The U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the lab, reserved comment pending the results of the lab's investigation.

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