Radioactive material moved from Santa Fe to LANL; Flynn said could have been used in 'dirty bomb' - Albuquerque Journal

Radioactive material moved from Santa Fe to LANL; Flynn said could have been used in ‘dirty bomb’

This story has been corrected from an earlier version to show the correct amount of americium in the drum moved to Los Alamos. The correct amount is 2.1 grams.  The incorrect information came from a state Environment Department official. Also, the specific violations against Thermo Fisher have been clarified.

LOS ALAMOS – A drum of highly radioactive material stood idle in a warehouse across from an elementary school on Santa Fe’s south side for more than 10 years, according to the state Environment Department, but state officials say that material is now safely at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Environment Department announced Thursday at LANL’s J. Robert Oppenheimer Study Center that a drum with 2.1 grams of the synthetic radioactive element americium, which is typically used in household smoke detectors, was moved from a Thermo Fisher Scientific warehouse on 5981 Airport Road to a more secure facility at the laboratory. Gov. Susana Martinez was also in attendance to congratulate the 40-member team that transported the barrel on Feb. 21.

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the element was secured at the Thermo Fisher facility, but said the department couldn’t bear to leave it in that location, which is across the street from Sweeney Elementary School and local businesses.

“It was stable and secure, but it was not in a location that we believed was ideal since it was in a residential area near a school,” Flynn said. “Nobody would want to keep material in that location for that long if they could find a better place for it. The company took extra steps to ensure that the facility where it was being stored was monitored by security round the clock, but this is highly radioactive material.”

Although Flynn said the drum was secure and didn’t pose a direct health threat to the public, he said the americium could be used to make a “dirty bomb,” an explosive that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives to spread radioactive contamination. Americium is an element synthesized from the highly radioactive elements uranium and plutonium.

“The threats of this material getting in the wrong hands are really the key safety risk from our perspective,” Flynn said. “While it was secure at the facility, there is no comparison to the security you have up here in Los Alamos. It’s not even close. There was not a threat posed to human health by the material where it was located, but that material in the wrong hands could be a significant danger to the public.”

Flynn said the Environment Department’s Radiation Control Bureau was doing inspections last May. The department found some violations at the Thermo Fisher facility, including insufficient details in required records, an appropriate six-month inventory, inadequate signs and labels, and a need to improve the containment of the americium drum with an added level of containment.

As part of the settlement for those violations, Flynn said the company agreed to pay up to $6 million to have the material transported to LANL, and compensate the state and federal government employees working on the project so taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill, and he said Thermo Fisher immediately fixed those violations. The company released a written statement through spokesman Ron O’Brien Thursday.

“Subsequent to the closure of the Santa Fe operation in 2008, residual manufacturing material (small amounts of radioactive material used in smoke detector components) was safely stored on site in accordance with a Radioactive Material License issued by the State of New Mexico,” the statement reads. “… Costs of the transportation, storage and reprocessing were paid for by Thermo Fisher.

“Our commitment to the health and safety of our employees and local residents required that all involved parties exercise the highest levels of confidentiality and caution while we prepared for and undertook the move, in accordance with state and federal regulations.”

Flynn stressed that the americium is not waste and said LANL will be able to make good use of it. Santiago Rodriguez, Radiation and Control Bureau Chief, said LANL won’t know the value of the barrel’s contents until lab officials learn more about it. Final costs of the move haven’t been tabulated.

Flynn said the project to move the drum started last fall and ended when the drum was transported in February. Rodriguez said many practice runs were done to ensure that the material would be properly transported. The roughly 40-member team consisted of staff from the Radiation Control Bureau, the U.S. Department of Energy and LANL.


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