Issued 6/4/97




UPTON, NY - Six workers received radiation doses, but no radiation was released to the environment, on June 3 when a small amount of short-lived radioactivity was released from a scientific sample inside the confinement area of the medical research reactor at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Neither the reactor's fuel nor its cooling water were involved in the incident.

The workers had been irradiating a small sample of plastic wrap in the reactor prior to a science experiment when the plastic partly volatilized, releasing radioactivity within the sealed room. The released material was later determined to be chlorine-38, with a half-life of 37 minutes.

Air monitoring equipment showed no release of radioactivity to the environment. Because of the short half-life of the radioactive element and the small amount of plastic involved, all the resulting contamination within the reactor enclosure decayed naturally within several hours, and the area has since been declared uncontaminated.

Radiation doses to the workers who were inside the reactor confinement at the time of the incident are still being evaluated. However, preliminary indications are that the highest radiation dose received by any worker as a result of the incident was a skin dose to one worker less than the dose from a typical dental X-ray. The workers were decontaminated, examined and released.

The incident has been reported to the DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. An investigation has begun to determine the reasons for the incident, and to identify steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The research reactor, which operates at 1,000 times less power than a commercial power plant, was operating when the plastic wrap was irradiated. The reactor was shut down at the conclusion of the irradiation, prior to the release of the radioactivity from the sample.

The medical reactor is a separate facility from the High Flux Beam Reactor, a 30-megawatt reactor that is currently off-line.

The medical reactor is used each year by 75 scientists from seven institutions and several companies to irradiate samples for studies in biology, chemistry, physics and materials science.

"This incident is exactly the kind of thing that we'll be trying to prevent through our new dedication to integrated safety management at Brookhaven," said Interim BNL Director Lyle Schwartz. "Obviously, we have lessons to learn - we need to instruct our workers to be more conscious of the safety and environmental implications of their experiments, and of all activities at the Lab. We can't prevent every occurrence on a site of this size and complexity, but we will do everything in our power to heighten the awareness of our employees and the thousands of scientific users who come to BNL every year."


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