Los Alamos National Laboratory health officials are monitoring a worker who may have inhaled traces of radioactive plutonium following a mishap at the lab’s plutonium facility.
Three workers evacuated a room in Technical Area 55 on Nov. 21 after a piece of plutonium metal accidentally ejected from a new spring-loaded holder and hit one of the workers, according to a memo issued by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent group that monitors Energy Department nuclear safety issues.
According to lab spokeswoman Kathy DeLucas, a nasal swipe indicated one of the workers may have inhaled a small amount of plutonium, but levels were below the federal threshold that requires monitoring.
However, as a precaution the lab is monitoring the worker to determine whether plutonium was absorbed by the body, and if so, in what amount, she said.
The employee was conducting a chemical analysis of a plutonium wafer when a clip that was holding the sample failed. The plutonium wafer a piece of metal smaller than a dime flew about 18 inches and hit the lab worker in the shoulder, DeLucas said.
The worker was wearing an anti-contamination suit, according to the DNFSB memo.
DNFSB investigators said that the new sample holder “did not receive adequate scrutiny as a new potential hazard before being placed in use, which raises questions about work planning, authorization, and readiness determination.”
DeLucas said that the lab had no reason to suspect the holder would fail, because it was new. Workers are redesigning the holder to prevent a similar accident from happening in the future, she said.