Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 24 No. 33
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
Article 6 of 12
August 28, 2020

Seattle Cesium Spill Should Be Clean In About A Year, NNSA Nonproliferation Chief Says

By Dan Leone

The downtown Seattle building contaminated with cesium-137 after what the Department of Energy called a “preventable” quality control lapse by a radiological source-removal contractor should reopen in about a year, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) top nonproliferation official said Thursday. 

“We are hopeful the University of Washington could reoccupy the building within a matter of a year or so from today” Brent Park, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, told Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor. “It obviously depends on what else we find along the way, but we’re making pretty good progress.”

Park spoke to the press and the public in a webcast hosted by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance and the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a pair of Washington, D.C.-area interest groups.

Park’s timeline is a month or two behind the remediation schedule shared in mid-July by Philip Campbell, manager of the radiation safety section of environmental health and safety at the University of Washington, at a meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management. Campbell forecast the project would wrap in June 2021. 

The University of Washington’s Research and Training Building at Harborview Medical Center has been closed since May 2019, when workers for International Isotopes accidentally breached the cesium-137 source of a blood irradiator the Idaho Falls company was removing from the building as part of the NNSA’s Cesium Irradiator Replacement Project. The company was working under contract to Triad National Security, the NNSA’s management contractor for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The International Isotopes team sawed into the holder for the source, which otherwise would not have fit into the transport vessel, but then cut into the source itself. That released about 2,900 curies of the material, contaminating 13 people and all seven floors of the facility, according to DOE’s March 30 report on the accident.

International Isotopes believes insurance should cover much of the company’s liabilities. In its latest quarterly earnings report, manage said this week it believes the company should also be indemnified under the Price-Anderson Act against any state penalty. That has been its overall position for expenses related to the Seattle event, which through June have exceeded $2.4 million. International Isotopes’ insurance provider paid out $964,958 for expenses last year. DOE paid $576,732 during the first half of this year, the 10-Q says.

Still, the Energy Department canceled or suspended all contracts with the International Isotopes for source removal, and the company has opted not to pursue that work going forward. Meanwhile, it faces potential civil penalties related to the incident from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatorty Commission and Washington state Department of Health.

Cesium-137, a gamma-ray emitter, is a potentially nasty fission byproduct that could be used by a bad actor to craft a radiological dispersal device — a rig that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material. Seen in a season of the most recent television incarnation of Tom Clancy’s Marine-turned-CIA-officer, Jack Ryan, such devices are also called, to the consternation of some nuclear professionals, dirty bombs.

The University of Washington and the Washington Department of Health each will have to clear the building to be reoccupied. They had not done so, at deadline. The NNSA has acknowledged that some of the facility might have to be demolished, if it cannot be cleaned up. The agency is paying for the remediation operation, conducted by Perma-Fix Environmental Services, which it has estimated could cost up to $60 million.

“I get almost weekly reports as to what’s being done,” Park said “I appreciate the possibility of how bad it could be [but] I think we actually have done just [about] as much as one could possibly do.”

The agency says it has removed 350 cesium irradiators, give or take, since 2009, and that the Harborview spill is the only time a host site was contaminated in the course of a job. The program is supposed to continue until 2027, Park said Wednesday, “if we’re allowed to continue the work.”

That seems likely. Despite the black mark on the program, the NNSA’s Cesium Irradiator Replacement Project has strong support in Congress.

The House and Senate Armed Services committees each authorized at least the roughly $2 billion in Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation funding the NNSA sought for fiscal 2021.  The full House has approved a 2021 spending package that includes $25 million for the irradiator replacement program within Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, plus $10 million for ongoing Harborview cleanup in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

If anything, Brent said Thursday, the accident in Seattle “further supports why we need to get this chemical out of the way.”

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