State says poor handling of uranium leak at Duke showed ‘negative safety culture’

A Duke University radiation researcher damaged a container holding a small amount of Uranium 235 last month, and the school failed to report it for two days and has been told to shut down a laboratory while it works on “needed improvements,” the state Department of Health and Human Services says.

One lab manager has been demoted, according to a report issued March 3.

According to the report, personnel checking for contamination afterward found several areas in the lab and in one researcher’s home. The small quantity of uranium involved and its radiation level of 3 microcuries meant that even if someone consumed the whole sample, they would get about the same radiation dose as the natural exposure that people living in this area get in two years, the report said.

Nonetheless, the state criticized how Duke handled the situation, including saying that lab workers did not follow proper procedures for reporting and made mistakes when they used equipment to check for contamination.

The issue began Feb. 10, when the uranium sample was taken from the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL), a facility on Duke’s West Campus, to an area known as the High-Intensity Gamma-ray Source. TUNL is a joint project of Duke, the University of North Carolina and N.C. State University.

The state report says one researcher noticed the damage to the uranium container, whose corners the report says had been bent to fit into a holder in the lab. But it says a colleague ignored the problem.

None of the lab personnel are identified by name, nor are state and university safety personnel who became involved later. The person who noticed the problem is identified as Researcher A (RES A), and the person told about it, who also was the one who had fetched the sample from TUNL, is called Researcher D (RES D).

“RES A expressed their concern over the leaking source to RES D, [but] this concern was dismissed by RES D, who did not report the status of the source or the possibility of contamination as dictated in Duke University established procedures,” the state report says.

According to the report, RES D had tried to fix the damage that caused the leak, then took the sample back to TUNL. RES D told a radiation safety manager about the problem on Feb. 13.

Duke personnel began testing people and their clothing to rule out exposure, but they made mistakes in handling equipment and samples they collected, and the results could have been compromised, the report said.

In a letter sent to Duke on March 3 along with the 6-page report, a health physicist in the state health department’s Radiation Protection Section (RPS) wrote:

“In addition to the findings of noncompliance during this inspection, RPS finds it necessary to impress upon Duke University a concern for the observed negative safety culture. This is evidenced by employees’ disregard for raised safety concerns from researchers, improper reporting to radiation safety and failure to conduct immediate leak tests and contamination surveys which might have stopped the spreading of U-235 contamination into uncontrolled areas.”

Duke has until March 31 to give the state a written response that must explain why the problem happened, what the university has done to correct it and what the university is doing to make sure it does not happen again.

The letter also says the state will look at Duke’s answers, then decide if the state should impose “escalated enforcement.” That can include more frequent inspections and a civil penalty, the letter said.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “Duke University takes seriously its responsibility to maintain the highest level of safety and security for radioactive material. This is reflected in the university’s excellent safety record, and well-established policies and procedures that are promoted throughout the institution. Unfortunately, those established policies and procedures were not followed in this case.”

Schoenfeld noted that the incident involved less than 1.5 grams of U-235 and said, “There was no risk to public health or safety at any time during this incident or its remediation.”

The university’s reaction, Schoenfeld said, included “making policy changes to heighten institutional and local oversight; promoting safety culture by instituting enhanced training and education; addressing personnel issues.”

The state also reported the incident to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses facilities like Duke’s lab that handle radioactive material.

Ron Gallagher: 919-829-4572, @RPGKT