Radiation safety officer says SEMO radiation problem dates back to 1973 spill

Friday, January 12, 2007

A radiation spill in a radiochemistry lab at Southeast Missouri State University in 1973 wasn't properly cleaned up and led to radiation contamination in the lab and elsewhere in Magill Hall of Science, the school's radiation safety officer said Thursday.

It appears that some of the contamination ended up on a person's or persons' hands and feet and spread to vertical surfaces such as doors and walls, said radiation safety officer and biology professor Dr. Walt Lilly.

The university hired an environmental firm in 2000 to clean up contamination in the building from that spill and a second spill that occurred about 1997, school officials said.

At the time, crews checked for radiation contamination on floors and walls where contamination was most likely to have occurred, he said.

The university didn't do a radiation check of every inch of the second-floor hallway walls, Lilly said. The chemistry labs are on the second floor of the science building.

This week, crews under Lilly's supervision checked the surfaces of all the second-floor hallway walls and cleaned up the additional isolated, low-level radiation contamination that was found.

Chemistry faculty member Dr. David Ritter on Wednesday criticized the university for not addressing the problem years ago.

But Lilly and Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said none of the current science faculty members knew of the spills until the contamination problems were discovered in 2000.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the chemistry department had a radiochemist on staff, Lilly and McGowan said.

"For the most part, oversight was lax and the potential hazards of low-level radiation materials were not understood or were minimized," Lilly wrote in a two-page report he released to the Southeast Missourian on Thursday.

"The radiochemistry lab was decommissioned by chemistry faculty members who were untrained in the handling of such materials or in the methods for assuring proper clean up of any spills," Lilly wrote.

From 1980 to 2000, the university operated with radiation safety officers who didn't have the proper training, he said.

In February 2000, it was discovered that a vial of americium had been broken and had spilled out of a safe in the basement of Magill Hall. The lab spill was also discovered that year.

As a result, the university has spent more than $1.29 million over the past six years identifying contaminated areas in the building and cleaning them up, school officials said.

As part of environmental cleanup efforts, all of the university's containers of americium were safely hauled away to environmental disposal facilities and sites. Southeast hasn't possessed any americium since 2002, Lilly said.

In 2002, a detailed check was made of sink drains and sanitary sewer mains leading from Magill Hall and the adjacent Rhodes Hall. No contamination was detected outside the buildings, he said.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined the university $11,000 in 2001 in connection with the radiation spills.

Lilly said the NRC has made on-site inspections at least six times since 2000 and found no further violations.

Southeast has continued to check for radiation as part of every remodeling project, Lilly and McGowan said. As contamination is found, it's cleaned up, they said.


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Magill Hall timeline

* 1960s and 1970s: Radiochemistry lab in use

* 1973: Spill of americium-241 in radiochemistry lab

* 1981: SEMO decommissions radiochemistry lab

* Late 1980s: Safe with containers of americium-241 moved to basement

* About 1997: Safe moved by unknown person and vial of americium was broken

* February 2000: Basement spill discovered

* June 2000: Initial remediation effort made

* July 200O: SEMO hires Science Applications International Corp. to handle the cleanup

* August 2000 -- November 2000: Contaminated areas were found and cleaned up, including in the former radiochemistry lab

* September 2001: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission fines SEMO $11,000 for various violations stemming from the two spills

* July 2002: Drains and sewers serving Magill Hall and Rhodes Hall complex checked. No contamination found outside the buildings

* September 2002: Last containers of americium packaged and transferred to Los Alamos National Lab for final disposal

* 2006: Magill Hall room remodeling leads to discovery of more contamination and prompts further cleanup.

* 2007: Isolatated contamination found on second-floor hallway walls and cleanup done to decontaminate the surfaces

SOURCE: Southeast Missouri State University

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