A defect in a storage container might have caused several Savannah River Site workers to be contaminated with plutonium earlier this month.
Investigators suspect a defective weld in a container within the vault where the contamination occurred, said Paul Jones, a spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., which operates the federal nuclear-weapons site for its owner, the U.S. Department of Energy.
Seven SRS employees were repackaging plutonium Sept. 1 in the site's "FB Line" facility when an alarm signaled the presence of airborne radiation. The workers left immediately but were found to have plutonium on their clothing and skin.
Health tests later showed that four of the seven inhaled bits of plutonium, a radioactive metal used in nuclear weapons. In sufficient doses, plutonium can cause cancer.
Westinghouse executives have said they do not expect the contamination to affect the workers' health but the dose was sufficient in one worker to cause the Energy Department to launch its own investigation of the incident.
The questionable container was involved in the repackaging operation, Mr. Jones said. Westinghouse workers will perform several tests upon the container to determine whether it caused the contamination, he said.
The tests will take several weeks, Mr. Jones said. Other containers in FB Line also will be tested, he said.
The four workers who inhaled plutonium continue to take medical tests to more accurately determine the dosages they received.
Urine samples from all seven contaminated employees are being sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Mr. Jones said. The lab has equipment that can analyze the samples more precisely than SRS equipment.
Workers have re-entered all 2,500 square feet of the contaminated FB Line area but have not cleaned all the contamination, Mr. Jones said.
"That's going to take some time," he said.
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.
Highlights of bill
The $288.9 billion defense bill would set up a separate, semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department -- the National Nuclear Security Administration -- to oversee the government's nuclear weapons program.
It includes $118.8 million for Savannah River Site programs, including $33 million for design of a proposed plant that would remove radioactive tritium from special nuclear-reactor fuels.
The 4.8 percent military pay raise is 0.4 percentage points higher than a pay increase President Clinton proposed in the fiscal 2000 budget.
The bill also improves pension programs and increases retention benefits