Nuclear accident unmasked

Two Sellafield workers contaminated with plutonium last week do not appear to have been wearing appropriate protection, it has emerged. The men received doses of radiation during an operation in a plutonium finishing building on 28 January, when a bag containing a used filter burst and sent radioactive dust into the immediate area. The other […]

Two Sellafield workers contaminated with plutonium last week do not appear to have been wearing appropriate protection, it has emerged.

The men received doses of radiation during an operation in a plutonium finishing building on 28 January, when a bag containing a used filter burst and sent radioactive dust into the immediate area. The other 11 workers in Building 209 were evacuated.

‘We understand there was plutonium oxide in the bag that ruptured,’ said a BNFL spokesman. Inhaling plutonium is particularly dangerous – it lodges in bone marrow and the body’s vital organs, emitting radiation for the rest of an individual’s life.

Workers exposed to the risk of inhaling dust that contains plutonium particles should wear respiratory protection, but evidence that the Sellafield pair sustained internal doses suggests they were not so equipped at the time.

‘I would have thought that would be an early question,’ said a spokesman for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is investigating the incident.

BNFL has put the two individuals through decontamination procedures – including whole body monitoring – and has taken biological samples for analysis. Results of these tests will not be known for several weeks.

John Large, an independent nuclear consultant, said workers involved in moving bagged filters would not need to wear full contamination suits but ‘in an area like that, I’d expect them to have a mask on’.

He said it was important to supervise such operations tightly. ‘It’s difficult to get men to wear masks all the time; they’re uncomfortable,’ he said.