Your Radiation Safety Conundrum

I have returned from Adventures in Radiation in eastern Washington and a fresh round of pre-order slots have gone up in the store as I finish up the last of the previous lots. I have discovered that I have quite a few emails with questions that aren’t related to enhancing my maxxxximum manprow. Sorry for the delay on getting back to you all, but as you’ll see below, there’s a reason for this. That reason is Science.

This last weekend was consumed with Legos, coffee, manhattans and evaluating a DOE incident report for intimate detail. If you would like your “radiation safety professional for a day” test, please look at this picture and tell me everything you see wrong with it. This is sort of like one of those puzzles from Highlights magazine when you were a kid, stuck in the dentist’s office waiting room, bored to tears, but instead with THE DEADLY RADIATIONS and, unfortunately, from an actual event. BEHOLD!

  1. You are going to use this setup for handling ZPPR (Zero Power Physics Reactor) nuclear fuel packages with a lot of Pu-240, Am-241 and their resulting fission products, all of which are fairly beefy gamma emitters.
  2. Gamma dose rates are  approx 30rad/hr at 10cm from a typical fuel assembly. As a reminder, in the United States, your annual regulatory dose limit is 5rad per year.
  3. The work operation to be performed involves opening the assemblies to play with the fuel plates within, with the very likely potential for releasing airborne particulates.
  4. The mass of inhaled Pu-240 alone necessary to make a worker exceed the annual dose limit is about 1 microgram, a quantity that is not visible to the naked eye.
  5. Herr Direktor Funranium, without a trace of irony, banged his head on the desk, yelling “NO! You have to be shitting me!” when first shown this picture. The good news is that no one died working here. It is otherwise a “No Pants, Bear” grade bad situation. This should give you some idea of how many things are wrong in this picture to pick out.

(NOTE: the people in the picture are Important People looking at this room before work actually began to make sure that taxpayer dollars were well spent.)

I just want to state for the record that I have shown this picture to a couple dozen people now that have no background in radioactive materials work beyond being “A Friend of Phil” (yes, I do realize that this over-cocktails-background makes them more knowledgeable in the practical matters of radiation than some grad students). On just a glance, every single person that looked at this asked how in the hell anyone thought this was a acceptable/good idea.

The only root cause answer I was able to come up with is that sometimes the profit motive of private enterprise isn’t always the best idea. At some level, I’m uncomfortable with the fact our national laboratories are run by for-profit entities, especially the weapons labs as that’s a relatively new development. It’s hard to remember the mission when you have to focus on the bottom-line.