Duke of hazard? University could face penalties after uranium leak

Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Uranium leak at Duke University
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Duke University could face penalties after a uranium leak that wasn't immediately reported.

DURHAM, North Carolina (WTVD) -- The breach happened February 11. It wasn't reported until February 15. State investigators say, in all likelihood, they would have caught it had researchers followed protocol and reported the mistake right away.

Instead, state inspectors say the researcher who worked most closely with the sample of Uranium-235 mishandled it, perhaps without using the proper gloves, and wound up getting trace amounts on both his keyboard at work and his toilet at home.

Four other researchers had their homes, cars, and other "high traffic areas" tested after subsequent interviews but no further breaches were detected.

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Inspectors with the NC Radiation Protection Section of the Department of Health and Human Services say Duke University could face penalties for breaking protocol. No one from the school would answer questions about the incident, citing the ongoing investigation.

The I-Team obtained a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that spells out part of what happened:

"This source was loaned to Duke University through Los Alamos National Laboratory for experimentation, research, education and calibration purposes. NCRPS personnel were dispatched to conduct a reactive inspection on 2/15/2017. Through interviews with Duke personnel, it was determined that during an experiment the source integrity was compromised and assumed to be leaking.

"It was also determined that the actual breach of the source occurred on 2/11/2017. Given the lapse of when the source was compromised and when Duke Radiation Safety Office was notified it is apparent that established Duke SOPs were not followed.

"Duke personnel and researchers believed to have been exposed to the leaking source had lung scans performed on 2/15/2017, in which all came back indicating no exposure. Duke personnel accompanied by NCRPS staff began testing for contamination of the affected area and surrounding areas due to the compromised source.

"On 2/16/2017, Duke personnel again notified NCRPS that contamination was discovered outside of the anticipated areas where contamination was suspected. On 2/16/2017, NCRPS personnel continued the reactive inspection. The scope to the surveys was expanded to now cover high traffic areas, vehicles of the individuals involved, bathrooms and other areas where potential contamination from the leaking source may have been in.

"For the identified personnel directly associated with the leaking source, surveys and wipes were expanded to their residences. One residence, that of a Duke Physicist Researcher, presented contamination on a toilet seat which was decontaminated and re-surveyed and re-wiped and the results confirmed the decontamination. Other areas of the residence were surveyed and at the time of this report all results indicate no further contamination.

"Additional researchers identified on 2/16/17 to have been involved with the leaking source, were also scheduled to have lung scans on 2/17/2017. Additionally, Duke University decided to compound testing to include urinalysis and possibly bloodwork at the advice of REACTS.

"At this time, it is believed that contamination due to the leaking source has been contained and no members of the public have received radiation exposures. To date, the highest reading in proximity to the source on Duke University's property was 7000 CPM and 4280 DPM."

State officials say the uranium in question was highly enriched but not deadly to humans, even if swallowed whole. The sample weighed 1.5 grams - about the diameter of a quarter with the thickness of about 3 sheets of tinfoil.

It came from Los Alamos National Laboratory and, according to the report, was being used for research and calibration purposes. Investigators say it was packaged to prevent contamination and then isolated for pending disposal.

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