Tuesday, August 09, 2005

When It Absolutely, Positively, Has to Be Encased in Solid Lead 

Just leave it on the doorstep, please:
The apparent mishandling of a potentially hazardous radioactive substance by an employee of the University of California-run Los Alamos National Laboratory has resulted in contamination of sites in four states, according to a report released Monday.

Traces of the substance have been found in homes in Colorado and Kansas that the Los Alamos employee visited, his own home in New Mexico, and also at the Pennsylvania laboratory where the employee apparently shipped a contaminated package via FedEx . . . .

"The package could have contaminated Federal Express workers and other packages," Beth Daley, a [Project on Governmental Oversight] spokeswoman, told The Chronicle. "Surprisingly, it took Los Alamos two full days after it discovered the initial contamination incident to notify (the Pennsylvania laboratory) that it was in possession of an unmarked radioactive package" . . . .

The lab reported July 27 that it had found contamination of the employee's work space, car and in several locations inside his home. It also found radiological contamination to the employee's skin and clothing.

Subsequently, lab investigators have found traces of the radioactive substance at the West Mifflin, Pa., lab of Bettis Laboratory, which had received a FedEx package from the employee, and at homes in Colorado and Kansas that he had visited . . . .

POGO officials said they were disturbed by news of the contamination. "The nuclear contaminant involved, americium-241, is far more deadly than 'normal' plutonium if inhaled, despite rosy depictions by the laboratory's public relations office. One speck of the material inhaled can cause cancer," Daley said.

According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site, "americium poses a significant risk if enough is swallowed or inhaled ... It generally stays in the body for decades and continues to expose the surrounding tissues to radiation. This may eventually increase a person's chance of developing cancer, but such cancer effects may not become apparent for several years."
The article goes on to note that UC's contract to manage the Los Alamos lab is coming up for renewal, and that the Department of Energy is considering a rival bid from a "team led by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas." Even before the FedEx fiasco, we would have taken UT and given you points.

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