SRS leak prompts procedure evaluation

A slow response to a radioactive waste spill prompted Savannah River Site officials to re-evaluate its procedures for such incidents, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report made public last week.

The spill occurred in late July and involved a waste drum containing plutonium-238 that was packed in 1974 and placed in a carbon-steel "overpack" container in 2008. As workers moved drums in that area in July, about 13 gallons of the liquid gushed from the bottom of the overpack.

Workers evacuated the area and monitors later detected contamination levels so high that cleanup teams had to leave. Three days later, workers with more substantial protective gear continued with cleanup work.

The problem with the response, the report said, was that it took too much time to mobilize the resources to handle the accident.

"While no workers have been contaminated so far, they were not dressed adequately during the initial two entries for the contamination present," the report said. "This prevented the facility from performing meaningful mitigation while the contamination was still wet and less dispersible."

Instead of an immediate cleanup, several days were spent tracking down equipment and trained workers needed for the job. No contamination was detected outside the enclosure.

"Recovery actions did not begin in earnest until a senior Savannah River Nuclear Solutions manager arrived at the Solid Waste Management Facility about 26 hours after the spill," the report said. "Since then, recovery planning and execution has been a high priority."

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