Originally created 12/23/99

SRS study: Specimens mishandled



Officials at a Savannah River Site ecology lab have revised procedures after several radioactive samples from Chernobyl were mishandled.

Researchers at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory mishandled numerous samples of plants and animals collected from the 18.6-mile "exclusion zone" around Chernobyl, according to the lab's own internal investigation. Lab officials launched the inquiry after discovering several mishandled samples in mid-September.

The lab voluntarily released the results of the investigation Wednesday to The Augusta Chronicle.

The ecology lab is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is operated by University of Georgia. It has an international lab at Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in history.

Scientists visiting the Chernobyl lab brought back in September numerous samples of radioactive animal parts, as well as whole frogs and lizards, cattails and birch leaves. Against lab policy, the samples were not transported, stored or handled as radioactive material, and not placed in areas designed to store radioactive materials, according to the lab's report.

Some of the samples were sent to the school's Athens campus, again without proper precautions. The shipment might have violated federal Transportation Department policy, the report stated.

The investigation revealed other samples that were mishandled from previous visits to Chernobyl, the report stated.

No one suffered ill health effects because of the errors, and no areas at the lab or the university were found to be contaminated. But the problems drew attention from officials at the Energy Department and in Athens.

"Bottom line, we consider this to be a serious issue," said Rick Ford, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS. "We have read the report and their proposed solutions and changes in policy in procedure.

"We will be watching to see how these are implemented and to monitor their effectiveness."

University of Georgia President Michael Adams required lab director Paul Bertsch to provide a written statement that no lab employees faced health problems because of the mishandling, Dr. Bertsch stated in a memo sent to lab employees.

The researchers who mishandled the samples face disciplinary action from the university, Dr. Bertsch wrote.

Researchers now must complete a checklist of safety and regulatory requirements before departing for Chernobyl, the director wrote. The scientists also must complete the Energy Department's training for radiation workers.

Scientists who fail to follow procedures will be banned from working in Chernobyl, Dr. Bertsch wrote. Previously, lab policies did not spell out the consequences of failing to comply with procedures.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.