Overlooked Nuclear Risk: University Reactors

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cited several universities for improperly handling campus nuclear reactors and their radioactive materials. The commission oversees 28 ?non-power? atomic reactors operated by public and private universities in the U.S. They do not generate electricity and are primarily used to produce low-level radioactive isotopes for medical treatment and research.

At Southeast Missouri State University, an employee who was hired to clean up a spill of americium-241 in a basement vault was exposed to more than 5 times the safe level of radioactivity. ?The individual wasn?t too thrilled about it,? says Josh Walkowicz of the clean-up company Engelhardt & Associates. ?But for an individual to be really hurt, he?d have to be exposed to a massive level. We have to wait to see what will happen, if anything.?

Texas A & M University improperly shipped a package of radioactive capsules to the Virgin Islands. ?The Tru-Tec personnel [who opened it] found that the radioactive material was resting on top of the shipping container in an unshielded configuration,? according to Jon Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. ?Tru-Tec personnel took immediate action to return the radioactive material to its shielded container and restored the container to the authorized configuration.? Before Tru-Tec received it, the package was stored for 3 days at a transportation facility in Memphis, Tennessee and briefly during a change of planes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The commission recommended a $2,400 fine against the university.

University of Missouri officials made staff changes at their research reactor facility after two ?unplanned radiation field events? occurred while servicing and refueling their reactor. The mistakes resulted in radiation leaks that could have been dangerous if anyone had been standing near the reactor at the time. ?That was a real wake-up call for us,? says university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken.

Students are rarely involved in radioactive errors. ?Students are allowed, as part of their class work, to observe and participate with a senior staff operator. But there are controls and provisions for security,? says Marvin Mendonca, senior project manager for the commission.

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