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The Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado)

The Plutonium Spill at NIST: What's Said and What's Not

LeRoy Moore

The June 9 spill of plutonium at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder has been widely covered by the news media. The tale mainly has been a buildup of damning detail, capped by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's July 2 suspension of NIST's license to handle radioactive materials until NIST improves its procedures.

The public learned early on that the spilled plutonium, which was in powder form, was not, as initially reported, confined to the room in which the accident occurred. Some of it -- an amount "below the legal limits" -- went down a drain into Boulder's sewer system.

The phrase, "legal limits," refers to official standards that limit permitted exposure. Such standards should not be confused with safety. The National Academy of Sciences 2006 report on low-dose radiation exposure affirmed that any dose of radiation is potentially harmful. A British study concluded in 2004 that cancer risk from plutonium may be 10 or more times more dangerous than allowed for by existing standards. Ulrich Beck says exposure standards may "prevent the very worst from happening, but they are at the same time 'blank checks' to poison nature and humankind a bit."

NIST's original account of the spill said trace contamination was found on the shoes and clothing of 22 people, 20 of whom were "sent home contaminant-free," while two had to wash their hands "to remove the contamination." On June 13, NIST issued a caveat, that though the alpha radiation emitted by plutonium cannot penetrate skin, "adverse health effects from plutonium exposure occur with ingestion or inhalation of the particles."

On June 27, NIST revealed that some employees may face serious illness because tests showed they had inhaled or ingested plutonium. Results from tests of other personnel are not yet available. Those who've taken plutonium into their bodies, NIST says, will be treated with "injections of a chelating agent that circulates through the bloodstream and attaches to plutonium atoms in the body to allow them to be excreted more easily," reducing the risk of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control says chelating is unlikely to remove all plutonium.

Because minuscule plutonium particles get readily suspended in air where they can be inhaled or ingested, NIST's early reference to plutonium on shoes and clothes suggests that the stuff was in the air immediately after the accident. But NIST's June 24 report says air samplers in the room where the spill occurred showed no airborne contamination at the time. Critics of air monitoring at Rocky Flats insisted repeatedly that monitoring devices are often not reliable. At NIST, personnel internally exposed to plutonium provide irrefutable evidence of airborne contamination.


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NIST says that when the investigation of the accident ended, air monitors in the spill room showed radiation readings had returned to "normal background levels." This phrase, used several times in NIST reports, would have attracted the attention of the late Edward A. Martell of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a specialist on radiation health effects. At his death in 1995 Martell left an almost finished major work that has a great deal to say about background radiation.

Martell emphasized that humans evolved and live within an environment of natural background radiation, exposure to which will induce cancer and other ailments in many of us, killing some of us. We thus should do our best not to add to the burden of radiation exposure beyond naturally occurring levels.

Martell, a radiation health officer for the Army during nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific, was acutely aware that, due to fallout from atmospheric explosions, plutonium is now present as part of background radiation globally. Given plutonium's long half-life, we humans have permanently altered what once was our natural environment. We no longer live in an environment of purely natural background radiation. Is this what NIST spokespeople have in mind in referring to "normal background levels"? The norm has changed, and, with it, so has the risk.

The presence of plutonium worldwide in everyone's environment, Martell asserted, has resulted in a permanent indeterminate increase in disease, deformity and death. Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb, reached a similar conclusion regarding the worldwide effect from fallout, his first step toward becoming his country's most celebrated dissident.

"Normal background": Martell and Sakharov might both have thought the phrase makes sense, but they would have said there's nothing benign about it. The world of standards for permissible radiation exposure continues bit by bit, locally and globally, to take us further and further from our own nature, to increase our burden of exposure and to exact from some of us, especially the most vulnerable, a pound of flesh and the breath of life. Is this the world we want?

LeRoy Moore, Ph.D., is a consultant with the Nuclear Nexus Project of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.

© 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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