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Worker Inhales Radioactive Materials

Employee inhaled small amount of radioactive plutonium and americium

Paraphrased by
Steve Waldrop

A Fluor Hanford worker recently inhaled a small amount of radioactive plutonium and americium at the plutonium Finishing plant. According to tests performed on the employee, the inhaled amount was below dangerous levels prescribed by federal regulations.

However, the employee is being kept out of radiation control areas until the end of the year to reduce his chance of more radiation exposure, said Fluor spokesman Michael Turner. Exposures at that level are considered minor by the Department of Energy's radiation standards. An increase of cancer can occur if sufficient amounts of those particles accumulate in a person's lungs.

This was the first plutonium inhalation incident involving a Fluor worker in at least four years, company officials said. The accident occurred in the PFP area where ovenlike muffle furnaces bake scrap plutonium into safer forms. Most of that work is done inside gloveboxes where workers can safely handle instruments and materials inside the boxes' radioactive interiors.

The unidentified employee was routinely inspecting a glovebox, putting his hands into the gloves. After pulling out his hands and trying to leave the radiation control area, the worker discovered he was contaminated. That stopped the work in that room. And three other people in the chamber also were checked. The worker inspecting the glovebox was the only one who was confirmed as contaminated. A hole was found in a finger of a glove he inserted his hand into while inspecting the glovebox, Turner said. He apparently contaminated his finger, and radioactive particles then apparently reached his mouth or nose.

In 1998, two Fluor employees inhaled small amounts of plutonium from an air line leading into a PFP glovebox. Their exposures also were below DOE's annual radiation dose limits.