Maryland Nuclear Reactor Emitted Radioactivity Levels ‘Safe’ But Larger Than Reported Earlier – NBC4 Washington
An incident in February at the nuclear reactor at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg may have emitted more radioactive material than originally thought. This emerges from the federal records verified by the News4 I team.
Although well below safety limits, the agency said its further review of the disaster revealed samples of radioactive material at levels three times higher than original estimates.
Federal regulators say the public was never in danger because of the incident. However, a number of follow-up reports on the February 3 event show that it was significant enough to force at least 10 workers to decontaminate and forced a rare evacuation of workers from a nuclear reactor facility.
A March 4 report by the National Institute for Standards and Technology to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that a fuel assembly in the reactor had overheated and damaged beyond 450 degrees Celsius.
In a public announcement in February, the agency said that radiation levels at its reactor complex were increased on February 3 and workers must be decontaminated before being sent home. An alarm on the site warned of the radiation levels during a restart of the reactor due to regular maintenance work, the agency said.
Both agencies said the public was safe during the event and still is today. The reactor is located in a research facility and is smaller and less powerful than the one used to generate energy.
Nuclear experts and analysts said the emergency is still rare and requires a long investigation before the reactor is put back into operation.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear researcher and former member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was alarming and unusual to hear about an incident that requires the evacuation of workers in a reactor.
“Fuel damage occurs in nuclear facilities, but it’s the unusual aspect that this damage infiltrates the control room and contaminates some of the workers. It has to be found out why that happened, ”he said.
Lochbaum said there are safety barriers in nuclear reactors to protect workers in the event of a fuel problem. The evacuation of workers suggests some obstacles may have failed as well, he said.
A NIST spokeswoman said a remote location was used to monitor the reactor while the main control room was exposed to contamination.
A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the I-Team that an NRC inspection report will be prepared shortly.
“Our inspectors continue to work while NIST investigates the reactor to determine what caused the incident,” said the spokesman. “NIST must complete this root cause analysis before outlining the proposed corrective actions for the NRC review. Up to this point, the NRC remains satisfied. NIST takes a methodical, appropriate, and safe approach to fully understanding the event. “
The nuclear reactor, which has been in operation for nearly 50 years, will remain offline indefinitely as regulatory and agency officials conduct reviews of the disaster.
The NIST campus, a large federal gated compound off Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, is surrounded by thousands of homes and several large shopping centers. The agency has sensors that detect radioactivity on the fence lines and often employs staff with hand sensors to do so on the premises. According to the nuclear regulatory authorities, the sensors showed emission values that were well below the safety limit values.
According to Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, the incident was of concern in the immediate hours after it was first reported in February. Ashman announced to the I-Team that he was notified hours after the incident.
“The first question that came to mind was: How do the neighbors affect you? Is everyone safe? There are many residents near NIST, ”he said.
Ashman said the agency responded to his questions and those of other community leaders to address concerns.
NIST has launched a website to accept and answer community questions about the reactor and the February 3rd mishap.
The reactor is part of the NIST Center for Neutron Research, which focuses on the research and development of neutron measurement tools. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology are an agency of the US Department of Commerce. It is a major employer in Montgomery County.