Fifteen employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium plant were tested for radiation exposure after a “glove box” breach in June contaminated the work area.
Air monitors sounded an alarm at the facility when an operator accidentally ripped the protective gloves attached to a sealed compartment for handling plutonium after the worker weighed and packaged plutonium-238 oxide powder.
The breach contaminated the worker’s protective clothing, hair and skin, and caused enough potential airborne exposure that other workers had to be tested for radiation, according to a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
“Employees responded promptly and appropriately, and cleared the room in a safe manner,” a lab spokesman said in a statement. “The area inside the plutonium facility where this occurred has been secured, pending a review of the events. There is no risk to public health and safety.”
The June 8 incident has prompted Triad National Security LLC, the lab’s operator, to conduct a more thorough investigation, the report said.
A nose swab of the worker who caused the breach indicated the person possibly inhaled airborne radiation, the report said.
Lab officials wouldn’t discuss the workers’ test results.
The lab has had past glove box mishaps:
- In March 2018, workers put a plutonium pit in an unauthorized glove box and placed fissile material in a plutonium metal shell, causing a brief evacuation. A similar incident had happened six months before.
- In 2017, radiation was released from a glove box being used to repackage old nuclear material.
- In June, 2016, technicians spilled about 7 tablespoons of a liquid containing plutonium in a glove box. Workers sopped up the spill with organic cheesecloth and threw it in a waste bin with other nuclear materials.
- In spring 2016, a glove box weighing several thousand pounds that was used to handle nuclear material tipped over and was damaged, though it did not result in a radioactive release.
Mishandled glove boxes are a long-standing problem at the lab, but having 15 workers possibly exposed to radiation because of one breach is a high number and could become more common as the plutonium plant ramps up production of nuclear cores, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
“The 15 workers is just an example of things to come,” Kovac said.
However, this incident didn’t involve weapons-grade plutonium used to make pits, the softball-sized triggers in nuclear warheads, Kovac said.
Plutonium-238 is used in radioisotope power systems, such as the ones found on the Curiosity rover for Mars and the New Horizons spacecraft flyby of Pluto and beyond, according to a NASA webpage.
These systems convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into electrical power for computers, science instruments and other hardware aboard the spacecraft, NASA said.
Plutonium dioxide is produced at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and shipped to the Los Alamos lab. There it is turned into heat source pellets and then shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory for long-term storage, where it awaits use in fueling spacecraft power systems, NASA said.