SEMO cleaning up more radioactive contamination

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Cleanup has cost the university more than $1.29 million.

Radiation contamination continues to plague Southeast Missouri State University's Magill Hall of Science.

A contractor began work this week to clean up contamination found in July in a chemistry storage room. The contamination was from a radioactive material, americium-241, that the university had used in a chemistry lab decades ago.

But Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said Monday that the contamination was so minimal the university wasn't required to report it to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But McGowan said the university reported the contamination anyway.

"It is something we would clean up because it is the right thing to do," he said.

Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins said the latest contamination doesn't pose a health risk to students or university employees.

Southeast has spent more than $1.29 million to clean up americium contamination since 2000 and paid an $11,000 fine to the NRC. The latest cleanup could take four or five days and cost the university about $10,000, Dobbins said.

Science Applications International Organization was hired to handle the cleanup. The firm did the previous contamination cleanup at Magill Hall.

The contaminated area was found under a storage cabinet this summer after the cabinet was moved to remodel the room.

The university then installed a high-security lock on the storage room so only authorized personnel, such as the school's radiation safety officer, would have access to the space, school officials said.

Southeast was fined in 2001 in connection with the contamination in 2000.

The university was fined for failing to make radiation surveys to determine the hazards, for failing to control activities to avoid overexposure and for possessing radioactive material that wasn't authorized in the school's NRC license.

But Dobbins said the university has strengthened its radiation safety inspections and monitoring of science chemicals and materials since the initial radiation spill was discovered in 2000.

Southeast officials believe that spill occurred between 1994 and 1996 when a safe containing the chemical was moved into a basement storage room.

McGowan said the americium contamination in the storage room probably occurred in the 1970s. The university currently doesn't possess any americium, officials said.

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