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State orders radioactive material removed from warehouse

Posted: Friday, June 3, 2016 10:30 pm | Updated: 11:13 pm, Fri Jun 3, 2016.

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican

Thermo Fisher Scientific LabThe building owned by Thermo Fisher Scientific Laboratory on Airport Road, pictured Friday, where a metal drum containing the radioactive material americum was stored for six years until it was recently ordered to be removed. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

A drum containing radioactive material used in smoke detectors and other equipment was stored at a private company’s warehouse near Santa Fe’s Sweeney Elementary School for years until state inspectors found problems at the facility and ordered the container moved.

It was finally taken to Los Alamos National Laboratory in February.

The drum contained 2.1 grams of americium, a byproduct of decaying plutonium. It was stored at a warehouse owned by Thermo Fisher Scientific Laboratory, a Massachusetts-based company that makes radiation detection and other specialized scientific equipment. Manufacturing operations in Santa Fe shut down in 2007 when Thermo Electron merged with Fisher Scientific International.

“We are in the process of evaluating the material and will determine its final disposition at a later time,” a Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman said about whether the lab will repurpose the americium and use it in research.

The amount of americium in the container weighed less than a penny and was securely stored, according to the company. Staff from Thermo Fisher Scientific and the lab moved the container of americium on Feb. 21. “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,” said a statement from Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Nothing about the modest red brick building would have indicated it housed radioactive material. The company did not respond to a question about how it had ensured the radioactive americium was safe and secure. Americium is one of three radioactive materials that have less oversight than plutonium and can be used to make a “dirty bomb” – a conventional explosion that can spread radiation in air and dust.

It is unclear why the state Environment Department decided the container of americium needed to be moved after it had been stored in the warehouse for so many years.

The company paid to have the container transported to Los Alamos.

The state ordered the company to remove the container in 2015 after New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn directed staff to inspect the facility. The inspection “revealed deficiencies, and then we issued notices of violation,” said spokeswoman Allison Majure. The state “worked out a settlement to remove the dangerous material and safely transport it to a secure facility at no cost to the taxpayers.”

Inspectors found problems with labeling, inventory, record keeping and drum containment. State officials did not provide details of the violations Friday.

Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group and a former state Environment Department employee, called the americium container situation “pretty weird. Leaving a drum containing americium in a warehouse for that long is not something I would have done,” said Mello, who once worked as a hazardous materials specialist. “If it is only 2.1 grams, then why the delay? If it’s not very dangerous, why not move it immediately? If it is very dangerous, why not move it immediately?”

Thermo Electron operated for decades out of the facility at 5981 Airport Road. It was originally Eberline Instruments, a company started in 1953 by a former Los Alamos scientist, Howard C. Eberline, who developed radiation-detection devices. At its height in 1981, the company employed 435 people at the plant and sales office.

The company built a detection device that alerted Western nations about the meltdown in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in the Ukraine.

Los Alamos employees helped move the container of americium from Santa Fe.

“Los Alamos National Laboratory was pleased to assist the State of New Mexico in the safe recovery of commercial radioactive materials from an industrial site in Santa Fe and then safely store that material at the Laboratory,” said Charlie McMillan, the lab’s director. “This public service to the community could not have been accomplished without the Lab’s unique nuclear expertise and the dedication of a team of highly skilled employees.”

Americium was discovered as a product of decaying plutonium during the Manhattan Project that created the world’s first nuclear bomb, according to the World Nuclear Association. The isotope americium-241 has a radioactive half-life of 432 years and emits alpha particles, which are most dangerous when breathed in.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began selling americium dioxide in 1962 at $1,500 per gram for use in household smoke detectors and later for use in oil well monitoring equipment. One gram of americium oxide is enough to make more than three million household smoke detectors, according to the World Nuclear Association. More recently, given the highly regulated supply of plutonium-238, some space programs are looking to use americium to make thermoelectric generators for space missions. Combined with beryllium, americium also can be used in equipment to measure soil moisture.

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.


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